The Importance of Nuclear Power in Reducing Carbon Emissions and Protecting Developing Nations

by Margaret Loncki

After the recent catastrophic nuclear meltdown of Fukushima in 2011, global support of nuclear power plants has significantly decreased. Reinhard Wolf, an international relations professor at Goethe University in Frankfurt, aims to demonstrate that developed nations do not have the luxury of shutting down nuclear plants out of fear of meltdowns. Wolf emphasizes the philosophical concept of one’s obligation to not seriously harm any other individual, which he believes will be the result of continuing to shutdown nuclear power plants around the world. Recent studies suggest that in 2009, climate change forced 10 million people into severe poverty and 45 million people to go hungry. The same study suggests that climate change produced 315,000 premature deaths. These affected individuals reside solely in developing countries.

Developed nations, on the other hand, released a large majority of the world’s carbon emissions. Wolf mentions the three main potential dangers with nuclear power plants but concludes that they do not come close to outweighing the damage caused by carbon emissions from coal-fired plants, which emit 16 times as much carbon as nuclear plants over their lifetimes. The first of those risks is radiation; yet, background radiation from coal fired plant smokestacks exceeds this more than 100 times. The second main concern with nuclear power is waste storage. Currently, we do not have a perfect system for the containment and disposal or radioactive waste. However, many promising geological sites have been suggested that would be suitable for repository. According to Wolf, any leakage would still cause far less damage than climate change continues to cause every day. The last, and most pressing, of the three potential risks, is complete meltdown. Coal-fired power plants resulted in the premature death of around 24,000 US citizens in 2009 alone. The catastrophic meltdown of the Chernobyl plant in 1986 was estimated to result in between 9,000 and 34,000 fatal cases of cancer. But carbon emissions result in nearly as many if not more fatalities than the largest historical nuclear meltdown every year, a number that will surely continue to increase as more and more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Wolf concludes that it is the moral obligation of developed nations to prevent further atmospheric contamination, even if it means putting its own citizens in danger.

Wolf, R. 2015. Why wealthy countries must not drop nuclear energy: coal power, climate change and the fate of the global poor. International Affairs 91, 287-301.


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