The Ethics of Technological (Especially Nuclear) Power: Japan as a Case Study

I wrote a post on the ethics of power-in-general recently, and on the fact that power is not evil, it is good, just vulnerable to misuse. I also just posted on the ethics of nuclear waste. Then a terrible thing happened in Japan: the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. And suddenly, something that was good – a source of electricity – has become a poisonous disaster.

Nuclear power is one of the most powerful technologies humans have developed, period. Whether in power plants or more obviously in weapons, nuclear fission and fusion release tremendous energies and lethal byproducts. This is human power at its mightiest, and therefore ethics must here be at its mightiest as well. But it is not. Hence disaster.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was not adequately located or engineered. It probably should not have been built at all, or if it had to be located where it is, it should have been more strongly constructed (like built on an artificial hill…) and had better backup systems. The moral imperative with immense power is to care for it with great responsibility, to control it and direct it towards the good. (As I’ve said before, Spiderman (and Jesus) sums it up best: “with great power comes great responsibility.”)

One of the interesting things about nuclear power is that, unlike fossil fuels which stop producing heat unless actively fed, for nuclear power heat builds up unless actively removed. This is extremely dangerous for precisely the reasons we have seen in Japan. If the cooling system fails, the reactor goes on its own trajectory towards meltdown.

Technology could have prevented this nuclear calamity if only it had been properly applied to the problem. Science could gauge the risk, and technology could have mitigated it more effectively. But human will decided not to take the safer course.

With human knowledge and power reaching ever farther into nature, we are losing our previous excuses for error. “Unforeseeable” is becoming a word that is harder to use, because we can now “see” so much. And with our technology we are able to do so much to compensate for the dangers we see.

Because of this – our immense knowledge and power – every disaster is now a technological disaster. We choose not to prepare, not to act. And if we have the knowledge and the power, and yet fail to correct the problem, then we have morally failed. Therefore if every disaster is now a technological disaster it is also true that every disaster is now also a moral disaster.

200 years ago this was not the case – there would have been little culpability for the devastation of a tsunami. People knew no better with regards to the science or the engineering. But now we do know better, and we choose to pretend that we do not. This is a huge moral failure.

Japan is not alone in this, in fact they are probably far ahead of most of the world. They had warning systems and most of their structures withstood the actual earthquake. For a 9.0, that is absolutely mind-boggling (this video of swaying skyscrapers is an enormous testament to the power of GOOD engineering). I know California will certainly be devastated when “the Big One” next comes around, and our culpability will be high as well. We could do so much to prepare, but we lack the will.

The main problem that I see is that we have allowed our technology to get away from our ethics. We can do so much more now than we could in previous centuries. Therefore our ethical responsibility is so much more than it once was. Technology has changed ethics, we just haven’t fully realized that yet. Technology has changed ethics because technology has changed the scope of human action. That is the fundamental assertion of Hans Jonas in his book The Imperative of Responsibility (which I am constantly recommending as a must-read for contemporary ethics).

We need to step up and take responsibility. We have more power than we admit. And in choosing not to act, we are choosing to accept the risk of disaster.


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