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5.2 Nuclear Technology

Nuclear technology is based on two physico-chemical phenomena that include atomic nuclei: nuclear fission (核裂變) and nuclear fusion (核聚變). In the former case, a neutron is shot at a heavy atom like the Uranium-235 isotope. It splits into a radioactive Barium-139 atom and a Krypton atom, with two neutrons being released, going along with a huge amount of energy being set free (left picture). This energy can be exploited for applications. To date, it is applied in nuclear reactors for electricity production and in nuclear weapons for disastrous bombs.


The latter is the enforced merging of light atomic nuclei such as that of Deuterium (Hydrogen-2) and Tritium (Hydrogen-3) into a Helium atom, releasing one neutron and a significant amount of energy (less than in nuclear fission, though) (right picture).  This occurs in nature: In the young stage of a star like our sun, what makes it “burn” is the continuous process of fusion of hydrogen isotopes into helium and heavier atoms. Technical applications are rare since it couldn’t be figured out, yet, how to scale this process into feasible reactor dimensions. However, it is exploited in hydrogen bombs, a weapon in which a “common” nuclear bomb is covered by a layer of Deuterium and Tritium so that the nuclear fission chain reaction is amplified by starting the fusion chain reaction.


Nuclear fission was first observed by German scientists Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Straßmann in 1938. Short time after that, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch provided a reasonable theoretical mechanism and explanation for the process. Niels Bohr, who learned about this finding, travelled to USA in early 1939 for an appointment at Harvard University, meeting famous physicists like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. The news spread rapidly in the US-American science community. Especially Fermi was inspired in this new prospect of energy transformation into electricity, and as early as 1942 he was ready to test a first reactor in Chicago, known as the Chicago Pile. Soon after the discovery of nuclear fission, there was a growing concern among American scientists about the chance that Nazi-Germany could develop a weapon that exploits the devastating effects of this reaction. After the Nazis started the war by occupying Poland in September 1939, leading American scientists, with Albert Einstein as their spokesman, warned US-President Roosevelt about this threat. The American political logic implied that “they have to build such a weapon before the Nazis do”! Roosevelt provided a fund for the development of a nuclear bomb in order to defeat Nazi-Germany (as the official reason). Later, the project became known as the Manhattan Project (since its headquarters were in New York). All in all, more than 2 billion US-dollars have been invested (an equivalent to 25 billion US$ today). The practical part of the project took place in the desert of New Mexico where more than 100,000 people lived and worked just for this project. The first successful test was conducted on July 16th 1945. At that time, Nazi-Germany was already defeated, but the then-president Truman insisted on finishing the project.  Three weeks after the first successful test, two nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6th 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9th 1945), killing 180,000 people instantly and probably up to 300,000 in the following years through radioactive contamination. Probably, USA revenged for the Pearl Harbour trauma that Japan caused them earlier in world war II. Today, there are estimated 20,000 nuclear warheads around the world, around 13,000 of them in the arsenal of USA, 6,000 belonging to Russia, and the rest to a few other countries like France, Pakistan, India. Officially, they are claimed to serve the purpose of deterrence.

5.2.1 Nuclear Weapons – Responsibility of Scientists

The Manhattan project and its result – the nuclear bomb – is the best example for discussing the responsibility of scientists. As we have seen earlier in this course, there was the claim that scientific activity is per definition neutral. Here, we can see some hints that it is not: Otto Hahn, discoverer of nuclear fission, considered suicide after hearing the News from Hiroshima. The scientific leader of the Manhattan project, Robert Oppenheimer, quitted the project right after the bombs have been dropped on Japan and fought against the further development of nuclear bombs, especially the hydrogen bomb. He was then accused of disloyalty by the US government. Other involved scientists didn’t distance themselves that clearly from their involvement in the project, and have been criticised for that. The most frequent argument was that of the Nazis developing such a bomb themselves and the ethical duty of being faster than them. On the one side, we have to take into account the role of media, spreading rumours and fears, for example hearsay reports of tests in central Germany (which never happened) in order to manipulate the population and the project participants with a political motivation. At a closer look, however, it turns out that defeating the Nazis is not an ethical duty, but rather a political duty. The underlying implausible argument is often articulated as “If we hadn’t done it, someone else would have!”. This is meant in two ways. First, the scientists who claim this want to point out that even they had denied to work on this project, there would have been other scientists who would have agreed to do it, so it would have progressed anyway. This is in line with the idea of technological determinism that claims that technological progress will proceed independently and will even shape society. We have talked about the misconception of this view before. Second, the statement expresses that if the (good, responsible, free) Americans wouldn’t build the bomb, the (bad, dangerous, barbaric) Nazis would, anyway. This argument is flawed, too. When claiming the morality of a decision, it must be regarded as universal. Someone else doing something morally inacceptable doesn’t mean that it is OK doing something morally inacceptable that is a little bit “better” than what the other does. The reasonable ethical maxim “Don’t build bombs!” must be followed by all scientists. Rather than saying “You build bombs, then I also can (and should)!”, it would be better to ask the other for moral integrity and expect everyone to refrain from building bombs.

An important problem, here, is the obvious dual use of nuclear fission applications. Research on nuclear reactors for energy transformation happened at the same time. Some scientists claimed that their “basic research” was motivated by the prospect of cheap and clean electricity generation, not by building weapons. It is also possible that the scientists in the Manhattan project really believed that a nuclear bomb will never be dropped anywhere, because the main purpose of it is deterrence. For them, it was all about “having” the bomb. The decision to actually use it was made by others (politicians). However, it would be highly naïve to work on a clear mission – the goal of the Manhattan project was clearly communicated to everyone – without assuming that the bomb will actually be used. In conclusion, in cases of more or less obvious dual use possibilities scientists can’t be accused of immoral research activities, but in cases that are as obvious as the Manhattan project, they must be held responsible for their engagements.

5.2.2 Civil Nuclear Program

The second application of nuclear fission is found in nuclear power plants. Here, it generates electricity without emitting any green house gases like CO2 or sulphuric or nitric oxides. This technology was implemented (politically desired and supported) in the 1960s and 1970s in the West as a response to air pollution problems that result from burning fossil fuels for energy production.


Indeed, at first this way of producing electricity improved the air quality in the industrialised countries significantly! However, there are two problems with it: radioactive waste and a safety threat arising from terrorism and from natural disasters. Safety Threat

The safety aspects of nuclear power plants came to the awareness of people first in 1986 when a reactor of the Tschernobyl (切爾諾貝利) facility exploded. The second biggest accident happened in 2011 in Fukushima (福島), Japan, when three reactors broke after an earthquake with a subsequent tsunami.



Especially the Fukushima incident had a big impact on the German nuclear program: A few days after the accident, the German government decided to quit nuclear energy and shut down all 17 of its nuclear power plants until 2020 – not because of possible earthquakes (Germany has none), but threats from terrorism (for example airplanes crashing into reactors, an imaginable scenario after the New York 9/11 events). In contrast to that, Japan decided to continue using nuclear power and build even more facilities in addition to the more than 50 they already have. What is the difference here? We have to keep in mind that risk is always a matter of weighing arguments and setting them into perspective to the cultural and social background and to many other factors that play a role. Here, Germany is not willing to accept the safety risk from failure of nuclear facilities. This is possible because Germany has reasonable alternatives, for example access to fossil fuels and old conventional power plants. Japan, without nuclear power, would be dependent on fossil fuel imports and the world market, also burdening the island population with air pollution. Every country or cultural realm requires its own evaluation. Some countries that are affected by serious conflicts and political instability are better off without any nuclear facilities. In others, like highly populated China and India, the air pollution aspect outweighs all other arguments so that their best solution is nuclear power. In any case, it becomes clear why nuclear energy is considered a bridging technology: It is still not the perfect solution for energy production. Scientific and technological research on the efficient exploitation of renewable energy sources (wind, solar power, water power) is hoped to substitute nuclear energy in the near future.

Remember the four types of risk discourse (4.4.4): In this case, the likelihood of incidents that can harm a nuclear power plant is almost impossible to predict, we have a high degree of uncertainty. At the same time, the respective affected value is clear: safety. Therefore, the discourse type is cognitive (on facility stability, exposure, emergency plans, etc.) and evaluative (what is the best way to ensure safety, also in respect of other values like social stability?), and dominated by technical (engineers, scientists, power companies) and political actors. Radioactive waste – Public participation

The benefits of nuclear energy are well appreciated: cleaner air, saving fossil resources, delivering a more stable and steady energy supply for a growing demand in industrial and private sectors. However, nobody wants the nuclear waste that it produces. When the politicians in the 1960s and 70s decided to invest into nuclear energy production, they were convinced that scientists will find a solution for this problem when the time requires it. However, until today no way of recycling or stopping the radioactive process has been found. The only way to deal with the waste is to store it somewhere, for example in barrels underground in abandoned salt mines. The search for such places is extraordinarily difficult because there is always a strong opposition among the local population. This is a classical case of “NIMBY”, “Not in my backyard!” (鄰避症候群!). This phenomenon occurs when people don’t want to miss certain benefits but at the same time also don’t want to deal with the negative side effects. Here, the solution requires principles of distributive justice. As we have seen before, justice is the main ethical principle in the context of sustainability. Here, it refers primarily to the distribution of risks.

This is a great challenge for responsibility. Who can be held responsible for the proper handling of radioactive waste? A common strategy is the polluter pays principle (污染者自付原則). In the context of radioactive waste, it applies to the generation that decides to provide itself with nuclear power. Leaving the waste problem to the next generation is unethical and unsustainable. The generation that started nuclear energy production, however, is already gone. It is too late, so to say. Moreover, the case is not as simple as it sounds. Thinking of future generations, the radioactive waste is not the only factor. Hans Jonas defined responsibility-related imperative as “Act always in a way that allows future generations to live their lives in a humane way!”. Burdening future generations with radioactive waste is certainly an ethical problem, but the alternative is burning fossil fuels until all resources are gone, which would also limit future generations’ options (and leaves them with bad air). The radioactive waste problem, therefore, has to be evaluated in regard of other factors such as environmental stability, resource management, etc. Arguments vary depending on the value that is held the highest. An agreement is hard to achieve. That means, here we have an ambiguity-induced risk discourse that is not only cognitive (What options are there for radioactive waste disposal? What are the most reasonable ones?) and evaluative (How can the important values be best protected and how can interests be best met?), but also normative (What are the values we hold important?). In order to support acceptable and publicly accepted solutions, there have been many attempts to include the public as a stakeholder in the decision-making on radioactive waste management, especially for finding disposal sites.

In practice, however, the participation of public stakeholders in the discourse on technology is difficult and often inefficient. As we have seen in the scheme on three levels of risk debate (4.4.5), technical experts are used to argue on the cognitive level with knowledge and expertise aspects, while politicians argue on the evaluative level with experience and competence aspects. Most citizen, however, have concerns on the normative level of values and worldviews. A good example that illustrates the common misunderstandings is an event organised by the Taiwanese agencies in cooperation with the TaiPower company concerning the construction of Taiwan’s 4th nuclear power plant near Keelung. It was intended as an information and discussion event in order to soothe the local citizen’s worries and fears. These, naturally, had major concerns about safety aspects and emergency strategies, for example in case of earthquakes. The technical experts from TaiPower addressed those with technical data on how they make the facility safe, while the officials pointed out the low likelihood of accidents by referring to experiences with the other three facilities. None of them discussed the weighing of values (how to deal with emergency cases, evacuation priorities, etc., risk distribution in relation to benefits, etc.). The angry and disappointed citizen left the event even more upset than before. This incident also shows how different ideas of the purpose of such citizen panels can conflict with each other: Some take them as information and education events, hoping that protesting and angry citizen can be convinced of the usefulness of a strategy or plan. In principle, then, the event is seen as a tool to generate acceptance for a political or economic decision. In most of these cases, the events fail in achieving anything. Better experiences have been made with roundtable discussions and workshops that take the citizen’s concerns serious and gives them the feeling of influencing the actual decision-making process. This form of participation requires a direct form of deliberative democracy.

Let me introduce a few practical approaches of such direct citizen involvements, without going too much into detail. The first is the Ethical Matrix: A table is filled (e.g. by participants in a deliberative workshop) with content, evaluating certain cases and implications of a particular technology according to theory-informed principles (e.g. those suggested by Beauchamp and Childress). The table shows the elaborations for the case of radioactive waste management in which the participants identified four stakeholders (nuclear industry, citizens, future generations, biosphere) and three relevant values (wellbeing, autonomy, fairness). With the collected interests of each stakeholder concerning each value, it is expected to see more clearly where priorities are to be set. This approach, however, was criticised to be exclusively consequentialistic, ignoring deontological ethical aspects.


Another technique is the Ethical Grid: A graphical illustration of ethical principles and socially desirable traits and virtues (e.g. trust, collaboration, etc.), that supports participants of a discourse with more clarity when analysing a technology concerning its social impact. The example shows this grid filled out for radioactive waste management. This approach was criticised to be too complicated and too theoretical, exceeding the ethical competences of the laymen participants, and therefore being inapplicable.


It was also tried to apply the strategy of an Ethical Delphi: An exchange of expert opinions (originally in electronic written form over a course of several months) in order to refine and clarify viewpoints to facilitate the formation of consent and agreements on how to proceed. The advantage is the anonymous form of viewpoint expression that motivates participants to state their opinions more freely. On the other hand, it is a tedious and long process, inefficient and often not generating any new and impacting insights.

The most promising results have been achieved with a method called Reflective Ethical Mapping. It is designed as a citizen Workshop that facilitates the information, opinion formation and solution finding among citizen on ethically critical technologies, based on Rawls’s model of reflective equilibrium. Here is an example from two workshops held in England with citizen from villages nearby which possible radioactive waste disposal sites have been identified. For two days the citizen met with ethicists who served as moderators of the debate. In structured discussion and dialogue sessions the participants sorted their concerns (often emotional and intuitive) into clearer normative statements and arguments (rational and reasonable). They used coloured hexagonal cards on which they wrote particular concerns, relevant stakeholders, possible actions, consequences and ethical issues, and set them into perspective on a large map. Here is a part of that network as an example:


This structured mapping makes many of the collected citizen viewpoints clearer. It has the power to change people’s mind from emotional and self-centred worries to fair and ethically well-reasoned arguments. Moreover, the citizen feel taken serious. This increases the change that they accept a final solution. The effect is a more reasonable discourse that can be exploited in the political decision-making arena. The results of such workshops – the overview of ethical concerns and their need to be addressed – was delivered to the respective resorts and councils in the government that took them into account in their debates.

These examples are just to show you what is possible in public participation discourses and where are the difficulties. Ethics, here, is clearly not a matter of moral philosophy, anymore, but an almost sociological endeavour of collecting, analysing and refining normative views and arguments among the population. The ethical competence of the discourse moderator (in the case above an ethicist) is of crucial importance, though. He or she constitutes the connection between descriptive knowledge about particular cases and normative knowledge about values and principles. Both together has a chance to result in something meaningful and fruitful.

5.2.3 Practice questions

  • What is your position in the debate on the 4th nuclear power plant in Taiwan? What concerns would you express in a public consultation?
    • Situation 1: Reply to a political actor advertising the project.
    • Situation 2: Reply to an emotionally upset citizen.
  • Imagine the Taiwanese government aims at developing nuclear weapons as a defence against the threat from mainland China. Is that move
    a) reasonable,
    b) responsible,
    c) ethically acceptable?
  • The big nation states of China and India have an increasing demand on energy. What would you recommend to them? Is it better to burn fossil fuels, build nuclear power plants, or invest into renewable energy generation?

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