The deep divide over nuclear power is nearly as old as its commercial use. The early dreams of its proponents have faded, whereas the high risks have remained, as well as the danger of misuse by military interests. Terrorism has introduced a dramatic, concrete threat. Global warming and the finite nature of fossil fuels do not dispel the major safety issues associated with nuclear power, and the ‘accident-proof’ reactor has remained an unfulfilled promise now for decades.
The artificial warming of the earth's atmosphere will surely pose one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. However, there are less hazardous ways to deal with this problem than using nuclear power. Nuclear power is not sustainable, because its fissile fuel materials are as limited as fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Moreover, its radioactive by-products must be isolated from the biosphere for periods of time that defy human imagination.
Nuclear energy is a high-risk technology not only in terms of safety, but also with respect to financial investment. Without state subsidies, it does not stand a chance in a market economy. Yet companies will continue to profit from nuclear energy under special, state-controlled conditions. Extending the licences of older reactors is an attractive option for operators – but disproportionately increases the risk of major accident. There will also always be regimes that view and promote civilian use of nuclear fission as a stepping stone to acquiring an atomic bomb. Moreover, as has been clear since 11 September 2001 at the latest, these vulnerable and very hazardous sites represent an additional target for unscrupulous, violent forces. For this reason as well, nuclear power will continue to divide public opinion for as long as it remains in use.
Nuclear Power – Myth and Reality is a series of papers on nuclear energy written by an international team of experts. The project is co-ordinated by Felix Chr. Matthes of the Öko-Institute. The papers are being published by the Johannesburg Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.