Box 106, Item 4: Draft of Nuclear power - ethical and social dimensions ; Draft of Nuclear power - ethical, social and political dimensions


Box 106, Item 4: Draft of Nuclear power - ethical and social dimensions ; Draft of Nuclear power - ethical, social and political dimensions


Two draft papers. First paper, typescript, corrections with whiteout, undated. Second paper, typescript (photocopy) of draft, with handwritten emendations, undated. Paper published, Routley R and Routley V (1982) 'Nuclear power—some ethical and social dimensions', in Regan T and VanDeVeer D (eds) And justice for all: new introductory essays in ethics and public policy, Rowman and Littlefield.


Papers housed in unnumbered folder marked Australia's Defence. Item number assigned by library staff. One of four papers digitised from item 2.


The University of Queensland's Richard Sylvan Papers UQFL291, Box 106, Item 4




This item was identified for digitisation at the request of The University of Queensland's 2020 Fryer Library Fellow, Dr. N.A.J. Taylor.


For all enquiries about this work, please contact the Fryer Library, The University of Queensland Library.


[62] leaves. 51.91 MB.




issue of nuclear power raises many basic issues in ethics.


By means of an example,

we argue

sorts of

transfers of costs,


from a

illegitimacy of certain




from one party who obtains

given course of action,

onto other parties who do

The inadequate methods currently available


nuclear power

wastes mean


transfer of


could permit
risks onto

costs and

the arguments



these crucial ethical


the i)7pra 1

Social Dimensions

Ethical and

Nuclear Power



the acceptability of




such an illegitimate

future people.


Many of

such risks on




We argue



transfer principles give rise

constraints on action such

for storing nuclear

those affected

future and


not present people.

The nuclear

issue and associated arguments also raise in a


topical w3y



allow for,
or are




such needs


many basic issues in

the consumer

in part


items nuclear power is

it authoritarian or wrong


Are existing democratic mechanisms
framework adequate,







The approach to all


these basic elements pure

or do we


to assume both,

alterable social

the answer to

kinds of social

changes would

framework and over


their own

crucially on

intera ction are conceived

they social wholes,



distinct and




allow for more adequate

these questions depends

how the underlying elements of



such.concentrations of power and

control by people over the social


they give inadequate control

or do

concentrations of power?

is affirmative,


for control over




frustrate such needs,

imposed by a particular,

the social




as we








One hardly needs initiation into the dark mysteries of
nuclear physics to contribute usefully to the debate now
widely ranging over nuclear power. While many important
empirical questions are still unresolved, these do not really
lie at the centre of the controversy. Instead, it is a
debate about values ...
many of the questions which arise are social and ethical ones.

Sociological investigations have confirmed that the nuclear debate is primarily

one over what is worth having or pursuing and over what we are entitled to do
They have also confirmed that the debate is polarised along the
lines of competing paradigms.
According to the entrenched paradigm discerned,
to others.

that constellation of values, attitudes and beliefs often called the Dominant

Social Paradigm (hereafter the Old Paradigm),
economic criteria become the benchmark by which a wide range of
individual and social action is judged ahd evaluated. And belief
in the market and market mechanisms is quite central. Clustering
around this core belief is the conviction that enterprise flourishes
best in a system of risks and rewards, that differentials are
necessary ..., and in the necessity for some form of division of
labour, and a hierarchy of skills and expertise.
In particular,
there is a belief in the competence of experts in general and of
scientists in particular. ...
there is an emphasis on quantification.

The rival world viewT, sometimes called the Alternative Environmental Paradigm

(the New Paradigm) differs on almost every point, and, according to sociologists,
in ways summarised in the following table


Dominant Social Paradigm


Material (economic growth, progress and development)
Natural environment valued as resource

Alternative Environmental

Domination over nature

Non-material (self-realisation)
Natural environment intrinsically
Harmony with nature


Market forces
Risk and reward
Rewards for achievement
Individual self-help

Public interest
Incomes related to need
Collective/social provision


Authoritative structures (experts influential)
Law and order
Action through official institutions

Participative structures (citizen/
worker involvement)
Direct action





Ample reserves
Nature hostile/neutral
Environment controllable

Earth's resources limited
Nature benign
Nature delicately balanced


Confidence in science and technology
Rationality of means (only)

Limits to science
Rationality of ends

State socialism, as practised in most of the "Eastern bloc", differs
as to economic organisation, the market in particular being replaced
system by a command system). But since there is virtually no debate
confines of state socialism,
that minor variant on the Old Paradigm

from the Old Paradigm really only
by central planning (a market
over a nuclear future within the
need not be delineated here.


No doubt t’ne competing paradigm picture is a trifle simple


subsequently it is important to disentangle a Modified Old Paradigm, which
softens the old economic assumptions with social welfare requirements:



instead of a New Paradigm there are rather counterparadigms, a

cluster of not very well worked out positions that diverge from the cluster
marked out as the Old Paradigm).

Nonetheless it is empirically investigable,

and, most important, it enables the nuclear debate to be focussed.


scale nuclear development, of the sort now occurring in much of the world,

runs counter to leading tenets (such as societal features) of the New Paradigm.

Indeed to introduce ethical and social dimensions into the assessment of nuclear

power, instead of or in addition to merely economic factors such as cost and
efficiency, is already to move somewhat beyond the received paradigm.


under the Old Paradigm, strictly construed, the nuclear debate is confined to

the terms of the narrow utilitarianism upon which contemporary economic
practice is premissed, the issues to questions of economic means (to assumed

economistic ends) along with technological, social engineering and other
instrumental details:

whatever falls outside these terms is (dismissed as)

Furthermore, nuclear development receives its support from adherents

of the Old Paradigm.

Virtually all the arguments in favour of it are set

within the assumption framework of the Old Paradigm, and without these

assumptions the case for the nuclear future the world is presently committed
to fails.

But in fact the argument for a nuclear future from the Old Paradigm

is itself broken-backed and ultimately fails, unless the free enterprise
economic assumptions are replaced by the ethically unacceptable assumptions of
advanced (corporate) capitalism.

The two paradigm picture also enables our case against a nuclear future

(a case written from outside the Old Paradigm) to be structured.
main parts?:-

There are two

It is argued, firstly, from without the Old Paradigm, that

nuclear development is ethically unjustifiable; but that, secondly, even from
within the framework of the ethically dubious Old Paradigm, such development

is unacceptable, since significant features of nuclear development conflict
with indispensible features of the Paradigm (e.g. costs of project development
and state subsidization with market independence and criteria for project


It has appeared acceptable from within the dominant paradigm only

because ideals do not square with practice, only because the assumptions of the
Old Paradigm are but very rarely applied in contemporary political practice,


the place of pure (or mixed) capitalism having been usurped by corporate


It is because the nuclear debate can be carried on within the

framework of the Old Paradigm that the debate - although it is a debate about
values, because of the conflicting values of the competing paradigms - is not

just a debate about values; it is also a debate within a paradigm as to means

to already assumed (economistic) ends, and of rational choice as to energy

options within a predetermined framework of values. (In this corner belong,
as explained in section VIII, most decision theory arguments, arguments often

considered as encompassing all the nuclear debate is ethically about, best
utilitarian means to predetermined ends.)

For another leading characteristic

of the nuclear debate is the attempt, under the dominant paradigm to remove it
from the ethical and social sphere, and to divert it into specialist issues -

whether over minutiae and contingencies of present technology or over medical
or legal or mathematical details.
The double approach can be applied as regards each of the main problems

nuclear development poses.

There are many interrelated problems, and the

argument is further structured in terms of these.

For in the advancement and

promotion of nuclear power we encounter a remarkable combination of factors, never
before assembled:

establishment, on a massive scale, of an industry which

involves at each stage of its processing serious risks and at some stages of
production possible catastrophe, which delivers as a by-product radioactive
wastes which require up to a million years’ storage but for which no sound and

economic storage methods are known, which grew up as part of the war industry
and which is easily subverted to deliver nuclear weapons, which requires for

its operation considerable secrecy, limitations on the flow of information and
restrictions on civil liberties, which depends for its economics, and in order
to generate expected profits, on substantial state subsidization, support, and


with problems.

It is, in short, a very high techological development, beset

A first important problem, which serves also to exemplify

ethical issues and principles involved in other nuclear power questions, is
the unresolved matter of disposal of nuclear wastes.

A long distance country train has just pulled out.
crowded carries both passengers and freight.

The train which is

At an early stop in the journey

someone consigns as freight, to a far distant destination, a package which

contains a highly toxic and explosive gas.

This is packaged in a very thin

container which, as the consigner is aware, may not contain the gas for the


full distance for which it is consigned, and certainly will not do so if the train
should strike any real trouble, for example if there is a breakdown and the
interior of the train becomes very hot, if the train should be derailed or

involved in a collision, or if some passenger should interefere inadvertently

or deliberately with the freight, perhaps trying to steal some of it.

All of

these sorts of contingencies have occurred on some previous journeys.

If the

container should break the resulting disaster would probably kill at least some

of the people on the train in adjacent carriages, while others could be maimed
or incur serious diseases.

Most of us would roundly condemn such an action.
consigner of the parcel say to try to justify it?

What might the

He might say that it is not

certain that the gas will escape and that it is mere speculation to suppose it
will, that the world needs his product and it is

his duty to supply it, and

that in any case he is not responsible for the train or the people on it.


sorts of excuses however would normally be seen as ludicrous when set in this

What is worth remarking is that similar excuses are not always so seen
when the consigner, again a ’’responsible” businessman, puts his workers’ health

or other peoples’ welfare at risk.
Suppose he ways that it is his own and others’ pressing needs which
justify his action.

The company he controls, which produces the material as a

by-product, is in bad financial straits, and could not afford to produce a
better container even if it knew how to make one.

If the company fails, he and

his family will suffer, his employees will lose their jobs and have to look

for others, and the whole company town, through loss of spending and the
cancellation of the Multiplier Effect, will be worse off.

The poor and unemployed

of the town, whom he would otherwise have been able to help, will suffer


Few people would accept such a story, even if correct, as justification

Even where there are serious risks and costs to oneself or some group for whom

one is concerned one is usually considered not to be entitled to simply transfer

the heavy burden of those risks and costs onto

other uninvolved parties,

especially where they arise from one’s own, or one’s group’s, chosen life-style.

The matter of nuclear waste disposal has many moral features which resemble
the train case.


How fitting the

analogy is will become apparent as the argument

There is no known proven safe way to package the highly toxic

wastes generated by the nuclear plants that will be spread around the world as
large-scale nuclear development goes ahead.
The waste problem will be much
more serious than that generated by the 50 or so reactors in use at present, with

each one of the 2000 or so reactors envisaged by the end of the century producing,

on average, annual wastes containing 1000 times the radioactivity of the
Hiroshima bomb.

Much of this waste is extremely toxic.

For example, a

millionth of a gramme of plutonium is enough to induce a lung cancer.


will include the reactors themselves, which will have to be abandoned after

their expected life times of perhaps 40 years,
may require

and which, some have estimated,

million years to reach safe levels of radioactivity.

Nuclear wastes must be kept suitably isolated from the environment for

their entire active lifetime.

For fission products the required storage period

averages a thousand years or so, and for transuranic elements, which include

plutonium, there is a half to a million year storage problem.

Serious problems

have arisen with both short-term and proposed long-term methods of storage,
even with the comparatively small quantities of waste produced over the last
twenty years.Short-term methods of storage require continued human inter­

vention, while proposed longer term methods are subject to both human inter­
ference and risk of leakage through non-human factors.
No one with even a slight knowledge of the geological and climatic

history of the earth over the last million years, a period whose fluctuations
in climate we are only just beginning to guage and which has seen four Ice
Ages, could be confident that a rigorous guarantee of safe storage could be
provided for the vast period of time involved.

Nor does the history of human

affairs over the last 3000 years give ground for confidence in safe storage by
methods requiring human intervention over perhaps a million years.


long-term storage methods such as storage in granite formations or in salt mines,
are largely speculative and relatively untested, and have already proved to

involve difficulties with attempts made to put them into practice.

Even as

regards expensive recent proposals for first embedding concentrated wastes in

glass and encapsulating the result in multilayered metal containers before rock
deposit, simulation models reveal that radioactive material may not remain
suitably isolated from human environment.^ In short, the best present storage

proposals carry very real possibilities of irradiating future people and

damaging their environment ,
Given the heavy costs which could be involved for the future, and given
the known limits of technology, it is methodologically unsound to bet, as

nuclear nations have, on the discovery of safe procedures for storage of wastes.

Any new procedures (required before 2000) will probably be but variations on
present proposals, and subject to the same inadequacies.

For instance, none of

the proposed methods for safe storage has been properly tested, and they may

well prove to involve unforeseen difficulties and risks when an attempt is made

to put them into practice on a commercial scale.
provide a rigorous guarantee of

Only a method that could

safety over the storage period, that placed

safety beyond reasonable doubt, would be acceptable.

It is difficult to see

how such rigorous guarantees could be given concerning either the geological

or future human factors.

But even if an economically viable, rigorously safe

long term storage method could be devised, there is the problem of guaranteeing
that it would be universally and invariably used.

The assumption that it

would be (especially if, as appears likely, such a method proved expensive

economically and politically) seems to presuppose a level of efficiency,

perfection and concern for the future which has not previously been encountered
in human affairs, and has certainly not been conspicuous in the nuclear industry.


Again, unless we assume continuous and faultless guarding of long term storage

sites through perhaps a million years of possible future human activity, weapons-

grade radioactive material will be accessible, over much of the million year
storage period, to any party who is in a position to retrieve it.

The assumption that a way will nonetheless be found, before 2000,
which gets around the wastestorage problem (no longer a nere disposal problem)

is accordingly not rationally based, but is rather like many assumptions of ways,

an article of faith.

It is an assumption supplied by the Old Paradigm, a no

limitations assumption, that there are really no (development) problems that

cannot be solved technologically (if not in a fashion that is always
immediately economically feasible).

The assumption has played

part in development plans and practice.
technological optimism (not to say hubris

an important

It has not only encouraged an unwarranted

), that there are no limits to what

humans can accomplish, especially through science; it has led to the embarcation

on projects before crucial problems have been satisfactorily solved or a solution

is even in sight, and it has led to the idea that technology can always be suitably

It has also led, not surprisingly, to disasters.

There are severe

limits on what technology can achieve (some of which are becoming known in the
form of limitation theorems^); and in addition there are human limitations
which modern technological developments often fail to take due account of (risk

analysis of the likelihood of reactor accidents is a relevant example, discussed


The original nuclear technology dream was that nuclear fission would

provide unlimited energy (a 'clean unlimited supply of power').
and nuclear

That dream soon

The nuclear industry apparently remains a net consumer of power,
fission will be but a quite short-term supplier of power.

The risks imposed on the future by proceeding with nuclear development
are, then, significant.

Nuclear fission creates wastes which may remain toxic for

a million years, but even with the (suspect) breeder reactor it could be an
energy source for only perhaps 150 years.

It will do nothing for the energy

problems of the people of the distant future whose lives could be seriously

affected by the wastes.

Thus perhaps 40,000 generations of future people could

be forced to bear significant risks resulting from the provision of the
(extravagant) energy use of only a small proportion of the people of .10 generations

Nor is the risk of direct harm from the escape or misuse of radioactive

materials the only burden the nuclear solution imposes on the future.


the energy provided by nuclear fission is merely a stop gap, it seems probable
that in due course the same problem, that of making a transition to renewable
sources of energy, will have to be faced again by a future population which will

probably, again as a result of our actions, be very much worse placed to cope
For they may well have to face the change to renewable resources in an

with it.

over-populated world

not only burdened with the legacy of our nuclear wastes,

but also in a world in which, if the nuclear proponents’ dreams of global

industrialisation are realised, more and more of the global population will have

become dependent on high energy consumption and associated technology and heavy
resource use and will have lost or reduced its ability to survive without it.

It will, moreover, probably be a world which is largely depleted of non-renewable
resources, and in which such renewable resources as forests and soils as remain,

resources which will have to form a very important part of the basis of life,

are in a run-down condition.

Such points

tell against the idea that future

people must be, if not direct beneficiaries of nuclear fission energy, at least
indirect beneficiaries.

It is for such reasons that the train parable cannot

be turned around to work in favour of nuclear power, with for example, the
nuclear train bringing relief as well as wastes to a remote town powered (only)

by nuclear power.
The'Solution" then is to buy time for contemporary industrial society

at a price which not only creates serious problems for future people but which

reduces their ability to cope with those problems.

Like the consigner in the train

parable, contemporary industrial society proposes, in order to get itself out of a

mess arising from its chosen life style - the creation of economies dependent on
an abundance of non-renewable energy, which is limited in supply - to pass on
costs and risks of serious harm to others who will obtain no corresponding


The ’’solution” may enable the avoidance of some uncomfortable changes


in the lifetime of those now living and their immediate descendants, just as

the consigner’s action avoids uncomfortable changes for him and his immediate

surroundings, but at the expense of passing heavy burdens to other uninvolved
parties, whose opportunity to lead decent lives may be seriously jeopardised.

Industrial society has - under each paradigm, so it

will be argued -

clear alternatives to this action, which is taken essentially to avoid changing
corporately-controlled patterns of consumption and protect the interest of

those comparatively few who benefit from them.
If we apply to the nuclear situation, so perceived, the standards of
behaviour and moral principles generally acknowledged (in principle if perhaps

often not in fact) in the contemporary world, it is not easy to avoid the
conclusion that nuclear development involves gross injustice with respect to
the future.There appear to be only two plausible moves that might enable

the avoidance of such a conclusion.

First, it might be argued that the moral

principles and obligations which we acknowledge for the contemporary world and
the immediate future do not apply because the recipients of the nuclear parcel

are in the non-immediate future.

Secondly, an attempt might be made to appeal

to overriding circumstances, for to reject the consigner’s action in the circum­
stances outlined is not of course to imply that there are no circumstances in

which such an action might be justifiable, or at least where the matter is less


It is the same with the nuclear case.

Just as in the case of the

consigner of the package there is a need to consider what these justifying
circumstances might be, and whether they apply in the present case.

We consider

these possible escape routes for the proponent of nuclear development in turn,

beginning with the question of our obligations to the future.

Resolution of

this question casts light on other ethical questions concerning nuclear develop­


It is only when these have been considered that the matter of whether

there are overriding circumstances is taken up again (in section VII).



The especially problematic area

is that of the distant (i.e. non-immediate) future, the future with which

people alive today will have no direct contact: by comparison, the immediate
future gives fewer problems for most ethical theories.

In fact the question of

obligations to future people presents tests which a number of ethical theories
fail to pass, and also has serious repercussions in political philosophy as
regards the adequacy of accepted (democratic and other) institutions which do
not take due account of the interests of future creatures.

Moral philosophers have, predictably, differed on the issue.

A good

many of the philosophers who have explicitly considered the question have come down

in favour of the same considerations being given to the rights and interests of

future people as to those of contemporary or immediately future people.


philosophers have tended to fall into three categories - those who acknowledge

obligations to the future but who do not take them seriously or who assign them

a lesser weight, those who deny or who are committed by their general moral
position to denying that there are moral obligations beyond the immediate

future, and those who come down with admirable philosophical caution, on both
sides of the issue, but with the weight of the argument favouring the view
underlying prevailing economic and political institutions, that there are no

moral obligations to the future beyond perhaps those to the next generation.

According to the most extreme of these positions against moral obligations
to the future, our behaviour with respect to the future is morally unconstrained,
there are no moral restrictions on acting or failing to act deriving from the

effect of our actions on

future people.

Of those philosophers who say, or

whose views imply that we do not have obligations to the (non-immediate)

future, who have opted for the unconstrained position, many have based this view

on accounts of moral obligation which are built on relations which presuppose

some temporal or spatial contiguity.

Thus moral obligation is seen as grounded

on or as presupposing various relations which could not hold between people
widely separated in time (or sometimes in space).

For example, obligation is

seen as grounded in relations which are proximate or of short duration and also


Among such suggested bases or grounds of moral obligation, or

requirements on moral obligation, which would rule out obligations to the nonimmediate future are these:-

Firstly there are those accounts which require that

someone to whom a moral obligation is held be able to claim his rights or

People in the distant future will not be able to claim rights and

entitlements as against us, and of course they can do nothing effective to

enforce any claims they might have for their rights against us.

Secondly, there

are those accounts which base moral obligations on social or legal convention,

for example a convention which would require punishment of offenders or at least

some kind of social enforcement.

But plainly these and other conventions will

not hold invariant over change in society and amendment of legal conventions and
so will not be invariant over time.

Also future people have no way of enforcing

their interests or punishing offenders, and there could be no guarantee that any

contemporary institutions would do it for them.

Both the view that moral obligation requires the context of a moral

community and the view that it is contractually based appear to rule out the
distant future as a field of moral obligation as they not only require a
commonality or some sort of common basis which cannot be guaranteed in the case

of the distant future, but also a possibility of interchange or reciprocity

of action which cannot apply to the future.

Where the basis of moral obligation

is seen as mutual exchange the interests of future people must be set aside
because they cannot change the past and cannot be parties to any mutual contract.

The exclusion of moral obligations to the distant future also follows from

those views which attempt to ground moral obligations in non-transitive relations
of short duration such as sympathy and love.

As well there are difficulties

about love and sympathy for (non-existent) people in the far distant future about

whose personal qualities and characteristics one must know very little and who
may well be committed to a life-style for which one has little or no sympathy.

On the current showing in the case of nuclear energy it would be easy to

conclude that contemporary society lacks both love and sympathy for future
people; and it would appear to follow from this that contemporary people had
no obligations concerning future people and could damage them as it suited them.

What all these views have in common is a picture of obligation as

something acquired, either individually or institutionally, something which
is conditional on doing something or failing to do something (e.g. participating
in the moral community, contracting), or having some characteristic one can
fail to have (e.g. love, sympathy, empathy).

Because obligation therefore

becomes conditional, features usually (and correctly) thought to characterise
obligation such as universality of application and necessitation (i.e. the binding
features) are lost, especially where there is a choice whether or not to do the

thing required to acquire the obligation, and so as to whether to acquire it.

The criteria for acquisition suggested are such as to exclude people in the

distant future.
The view that there are no moral constraints with respect to future

people, that one is free to act however one likes with respect to them, is not
however sustainable.

Consider, for example, a scientific group which, tor no

particular reason other than to test a particular piece of technology, places

in orbit a cobalt bomb set off by a triggering device designed to go off several
hundred years from the time of its despatch.

No presently living person and

none of their immediate descendants would be affected, but the population of

the earth in the distant future would be wiped out as a

result of the action.

direct and predictable

The unconstrained position clearly implies that this is

an acceptable moral enterprise, that whatever else we might legitimately
criticize in the scientists’ experiment, perhaps its being over-expensive or

badly designed, we cannot lodge a moral protest about the damage it will do
to future people.

the following sort

The unconstrained position also endorses as morally acceptable

of policy:-

A firm discovers it can make a handsome profit

from mining, processing and manufacturing a new type of material which, although

it causes no problem for present people or their immediate descendants,


over a period of hundreds of years decay into a substance which will cause an
enormous epidemic of cancer among the inhabitants of the earth at that time.

According to the unconstrained view the firm is free to act in its own interests,
without any consideration for the harm it does remote future people.

Such counterexamples to the unconstrained view, which are easily varied
and multiplied, might seem childishly obvious.

Yet the unconstrained position

concerning the future from which they follow is far from being a straw man; not
only have several philosophers endorsed this position, but it is a clear

implication of many currently popular views of the basis of moral obligation, as

well as of prevailing economic theory.

It seems that those who opt for the

unconstrained position have not considered such examples, despite their being

clearly implied by their position.

We suspect that - we would certainly hope

that - when it is brought out that the unconstrained position admits such

counterexamples, that being free to act implies among other things being free to

inflict pointless harm for example, most of those who opted for the unconstrained

position would want to assert that it was not what they intended.

What many

of those who have put forward the unconstrained position seem to have had in

mind in denying moral obligation is rather that- future people can look after

themselves, that we are not responsible for their lives.

The popular view that

the future can take care of itself also seems to assume a future causally

independent of the present.

But it is not.

It is not as if, in the counter­

example cases or in the nuclear case, the future is simply being left alone
to take care of itself.

Present people are influencing it, and in doing so

thereby acquire many Of the same sorts of moral responsibilities as they do in

causally affecting the present and immediate future, namely the obligation to

take account in what they do of people affected and their interests, to be
careful in their actions, to take account of the genuine probability of their

actions causing harm, and to see that they do not act so as to rob future
people of the chance of a good life.

Furthermore, to say that we are not responsible for the lives of future

people does not amount to the same thing as saying that we are free to do as we
like with respect to them, that there are no moral constraints on our action

involving them.

In just the same way, the fact that one does not have or has not

acquired an obligation to some stranger with whom one has never been involved, that
one has no responsibility for his life, does not imply that one is free to do
what one likes with respect to him, for example to rob him or to pursue some

course of action of advantage to oneself which could seriously harm him.
These difficulties for the unconstrained position arise in part from the
(sometimes deliberate) failure to make an important distinction between acquired

or assumed obligation toward somebody, for which some act of acquisition or
assumption is required as a qualifying condition, and moral constraints, which
require, for example, that one should not act so as to damage or harm someone,

and for which no act of acquisition is required.

There is a considerable

difference in the level and kind of responsibility involved.

In the first case

one must do something or be something which one can fail to do or be, e.g.

have loves, synpathy, be contracted.

In the second case responsibility arises

as a result of being a causal agent who is aware of the consequences or probable
consequences of his action, and thus does not have to be especially acquired or


Thus there is no problem about how the latter class, moral constraints,

can apply to the distant future in cases where it may be difficult or impossible
for acquisition or assumption conditions to be satisfied.

They apply as a result

of the ability to produce causal effects on the distant future of a reasonably
predictable nature.

Thus also moral constraints can apply to what does not

(yet) exist, just as actions can cause results that do not (yet) exist.


it may perhaps be the case that there would need to be an acquired or assumed
obligation in order for it to be claimed that contemporary people must make
special sacrifices for future people of an heroic kind, or even to help them

especially, only moral constraints are needed in order for us to be constrained
from harming them.

Thus, to return to the train parable, the consigner cannot

argue in justification of his action that he has never assumed or acquired
responsibility for the passengers, that he does not know them and therefore has no

love or sympathy for them and that they are not part of his moral community, in
short that he has no special obligations to help them.

All that one needs to

argue concerning the train, and the nuclear case, is that there are moral

constraints against harming, not that there are specially acquired obligations
to take responsibility for the lives of people involved.

There has been an attempt to represent all obligations to the distant

future in terms of heroic self-sacrifice, something which cannot of course be
morally required.

But in view of the distinctions between constraints and

acquired obligation and between obligation and supererogation this is just

to misrepresent the position of these obligations.

For example, one is no more

engaging in heroic self-sacrifice by not forcing future people into an unviable
life position or by refraining from causing then direct harm than the consigner
is resorting to heroic self-sacrifice in refraining from placing his dangerous

package on the train.
The conflation of moral restraints with acquired obligation, and the

attempt therewith to view all constraints as acquired and to write off nonacquired

constraints, is facilitated through the use of the term ’moral obligation’ both
to signify any type of deontic constraints and also to indicate rather something

which has to be assumed or required.

The conflation is encouraged by reductionist

positions which, in attempting to account for obligation in general, mistakenly
endeavour to collapse all obligations.

Hence the equation, and some main roots

of the unconstrained position, of the erroneous belief that there are no moral

constraints concerning the distant future.
The unconstrained view tends to give way, under the weight of counter­

examples, to more qualified, and sometimes ambivalent, positions, for example
the position that

our obligations are to immediate posterity, we ought to try to
improve the world so that we shall be able to hand it over to

our immediate successors in a better condition, and that is all;
there are in practice no obligations to the distant future.


A main argument

in favour of the latter theme is that such obligations would in practice be

Everything that needs to be accounted for can be encompassed through

the chain picture of obligation as linking successive generations, under which

each generation has obligations, based on loves or sympathy, only to the
succeeding generation.


There are at least three objections to this chain

First, it is inadequate to treat constraints concerning the future

as if they applied only between generations, as if there were no question of

constraints on individuals as opposed to whole generations, since individuals
can create causal effects, e.g. harm, on the future in a way which may create
individual responsibility, and which often cannot be sheeted home to an entire


Nuclear power and its wastes, for example, are strictly the

responsibility of small groups of power-holders, not a generational responsibility.

Secondly, such chains, since non-transitive, cannot yield direct obligations to
the distant future.

But for this very reason the chain picture cannot be

adequate, as examples again show.

For the picture is unable to explain several

of the cases that have to be dealt with, e.g. the examples already discussed

which show that we can have a direct effect on the distant future without
affecting the next generation, who may not even be able to Influence matters.

Thirdly, improvements for immediate successors may be achieved at the expense of

disadvantages to people of the more distant future.

Improving the world for

immediate successors is quite compatible with, and may even in some circumstances

be most easily achieved by, ruining it for less immediate successors.


cases can hardly be written off as ’’never-never land" examples since many cases
of environmental exploitation might be seen as of just this type. e.g. not just
the nuclear case but also the exhaustion of non-renewable resources and the

long-term depletion of renewable resources such as soils and forests through

If then such obvious injustices to future people arising from the

favouring or exclusive concern with immediate successors are to be avoided,
obligations to the future will have to be seen as in some way fairly

distributed over time, and not merely as accruing to particular generations in

the way the chain picture suggests.



While there are grave difficulties for the

unconstrained position, qualification leads to a more defensible position.
According to the main qualified position we are not entirely unconstrained

with respect to the distant future, there are obligations, but these are not so
important as those to the present, and the interests of distant future people
cannot weigh very much in the scale against those of the present and immediate


The interests of future people then, except in unusual cases, count for

very much less than the interests of present people.

Hence such things as nuclear

development and various exploitative activities which benefit present people should

proceed, even if people of the distant future are (somewhat) disadvantaged by them.
The qualified position appears to be widely held and is implicit in

prevailing economic theories, where the position of a decrease in weight of future
costs and benefits (and so of future interests) is obtained by application over

time of a discount rate, so discounting costs and risks to future people.


attempt to apply economics as a moral theory, something that is becoming

increasingly common, can lead then to the qualified position.
objectionable in such an approach is that

What is

economics should operate within the

bounds of moral (deontic) constraints, just as in practice it operates within

legal constraints, not determine what those constraints are.

There are moreover

alternative economic theories and simply to adopt, without further ado, one

which discounts the future is to beg many questions at issue.


Among the arguments that economists offer for generally discounting
the future, the most threadbare is based on the assumption that future

generations will be better off than present ones, and so better placed to handle
the waste problem.
Since there is mounting evidence that future generations
may well not

be better off than present ones, especially in things that matter,

no argument for discounting the interests of future generations on this basis
can carry much weight.

Nor is that all that is wrong with the argument.


it depends at base on the assumption that poorer contemporaries would be making
sacrifices to richer successors in foregoing such (allegedly beneficial)

developments as nuclear power.

sacrifice argument.

That is, it depends on the already scotched

In any case, for the waste disposal problem to be

legitimately bequeathed to the future generations, it would have to be shown,
what recent economic progress hardly justifies, that future generations will

be, not just better off, but so much better off and more capable that they

can duly absorb the nuclear waste burden.
A more plausible argument for discounting is directly in terms of

opportunity costs.

It is argued, from the fact that a dollar gained now is worth

much more than a dollar received in the non-immediate future (because the first
dollar could meanwhile be invested at compound interest), that discounting is

required to obtain equivalent monetary values, and so for efficient allocation
of resources.

Similarly it is argued, by virtue again of equalization of monetary

value, that compensation - which is what the waste problem is taken to come to

economically - costs much less now than later.

Thus a few pennies set aside

(e.g. in a trust fund) now or in the future, if need be, will suffice to
compensate eventually for any victims of remote radioactive waste leakage.

There are, presently at least, insurmountable practical difficulties about
applying such discounting, e.g. how to determine appropriate future discount rates.

A more serious objection is that applied generally, the argument presupposes,
what is false, that compensation, like value, can always be converted into

monetary equivalents, that people (including those outside market frameworks)

can be monetarily compensated for a variety of damages, including cancer and loss
of life.

There is no compensating a dead man, or for a lost species.

In fact

the argument presupposes a double reduction neither part of which can succeed:

it is not just that value cannot in general be represented at all adequately
but (as against utilitarianism, for example) that constraints and
obligations can not be somehow reduced to matters of value.

It is also

presupposed that all decision methods, suitable for requisite nuclear choices,


are bound to apply discounting.

This is far from so : indeed Goodin argues that,

on the contrary, more appropriate decision rules do not allow discounting, and
discounting only works in practice with expected utility rules (such as underlie
cost-benefit and benefit-risk analyses), which are, he contends strictly

inapplicable for nuclear choices (since not all outcomes can be duly determined

and assigned probabilities, in the way that application of the rules requires.).


As the preceding arguments reveal, the discounting move often has the same

result as the unconstrained position.

If, for instance, we consider the cancer

example and reduce costs to payable compensation, it is evident that over a

sufficiently long period of time discounting at current prices would lead to the
conclusion that there are no recoverable damages and so, in economic terms, no

In short, even certain damage to future people could be written off.

One way to achieve the bias against future people is by the application of
discount rates which are set in accord with the current economic horizons of no
more than about 15 years,
and application of such rates would simply beg

the question against the interests and rights of future people.

Where there is

certain future damage of a morally forbidden type, for example, the whole method
of discounting is simply inapplicable, and its use would violate moral
Another argument for the qualified position, which avoids the objections

from cases of certain damage, comes from probability considerations.

The distant

future, it is argued, is much more uncertain than the present and immediate
future, so that probabilities are consequently lower, perhaps even approaching
or coinciding with zero for any hypothesis concerning the distant future.


then if we take account of probabilities in the obvious way, by simply multiplying

them against costs and benefits , it is evident that the interests of future

people, except in cases where there is an unusually high degree of certainty,

must count for (very much) less than those of present and neighbouring people
where (much) higher probabilities are attached.

So in the case of conflict

between the present and the future where it is a question of weighing certain
benefits to the people of the present and the immediate future against a much
lower probability of indeterminate costs to an indeterminate number of distant
future people, the issue would normally be decided in favour of the present,

assuming anything like similar costs and benefits were involved.

But of course

it cannot be assumed that anything like similarly weighted costs and benefits
are involved in the nuclear case, especially if it is a question of risking

poisoning some of the earth for half a million or so years, with consequent

risk of serious harm to thousands of generations of future people, in order to

obtain doubtful benefits for some present people, in the shape of the opportunity
to maintain corporation profitability or to continue unnecessarily high energy

And even if the costs and benefits were comparable or

evenly weighted,

such an argument would be defective, since an analogous argument would show

that the consigner’s action is acceptable provided the benefit, e.g. the
profit, he stood to gain from imposing significant risks on other people, was

sufficiently large.
Such a cost-benefit or risk-benefit approach to moral and decision

problems, with or without the probability frills, is quite inadequate where
different parties are concerned or to deal with cases of conflict of interest

or moral problems where deontic constraints are involved, and commonly

yields counterintuitive results.

For example, it would follow on such principles

that it is permissible for a firm to injure, or very likely injure, some,

innocent party provided the firm stands to make a sufficiently large gain from


But the costs and benefits involved are not transferable in any simple or

general way from one party to another .

Transfers of this kind, of costs

and benefits involving different parties, commonly raise moral issues - e.g.

is x entitled to benefit himself by imposing costs on y - which are not
susceptible to a simple cost-benefit approach of the sort adopted in promotion

of nuclear energy, where costs to future people are sometimes dismissed with
the soothing remark that any development involves costs as well as benefits.
The limitations of transfer point is enough to invalidate the comparison,

heavily relied on in building a case for the acceptability of the nuclear
risk, between nuclear risks and those from such activities as airplane travel

or cigarette smoking.

In the latter case those who supposedly benefit from the

activity are also, to an overwhelming extent, those who bear the serious health
costs and risks involved.

In contrast the users and supposed beneficiaries

of nuclear energy will be risking not only, or even primarily, their own lives
and health, but also that of others who may be non-beneficiaries and who may be

spatially or temporally removed, and these risks will not be in any direct way
related to a person’s extent of use.

The transfer objection is essentially the same as that to the utilitarian's

(happiness) sums as a way of solving moral conflict between different parties,

and the introduction of probability considerations - as in utilitarian decision
methods such as expected utility rules - does not change the principles involved

but merely complicates the analysis. One might further object to the probability
argument that probabilities involving distant future situations are not always

less than those concerning the immediate future in the way the argument supposes,

and that the outcomes of some moral problems do not depend on a high level of
probability anyway.

In some sorts of cases it is enough, as the train parable

that a significant risk is created; such cases do not depend critically

on high probability assignments.


Uncertainty arguments in various forms are the most common and important
ones used by philosophers, economists and others to argue for the position that we

cannot be expected to
distant future.

take serious account of the effects of our actions on the

There are two strands to the uncertainty argument, capable of

separation, but frequently tangled up.

Both arguments are mistaken, the first

on a Priori grounds, the second on a posteriori grounds.

The first argument

is a generalised uncertainty argument which runs as follows:-

In contrast to

the exact information we can obtain about the present, the information we can

obtain about the effects of our actions on the distant future is unreliable,

fuzzy and highly speculative.

But we cannot base assessments of how we should

act on information of this kind, especially when accurate information is obtain­

able about the present which would indicate different action.

Therefore we must

regretfully ignore the uncertain effects of our actions on the distant future.
More formally and


One only has obligations to the future if these

obligations are based on reliable information at present as regards the
distant future.

Therefore one has no obligations to the distant future.


first argument is essentially a variant on a sceptical argument in epistemology

concerning our knowledge of the future (formally, replace ’obligations' by

'knowledge' in the crude statement of the argument above).

The main ploy is to

considerably overestimate and overstate the degree of certainty available with

respect to the present and immediate future, and the degree of certainty which
is required as the basis for moral consideration with respect to the present

and with respect to the future.

Associated with this is the attempt to suggest

a sharp division as regards certainty between the present and immediate future
on the one hand and the distant future on the other.

We shall not find, we

suggest, that there is any such sharp or simple division between the distant
future and the adjacent future and the present, at least with respect to those

things in the present which are normally subject to moral constraints.

We can

and constantly do act on the basis of such "unreliable" information, as the
sceptic as regards the future conveniently labels "uncertainty"; for sceptic­
proof certainty is rarely, or never, available with respect to much of the
present and immediate future.

In moral situations in the present, action

often takes account of risk and probability, even quite low probabilities.
Consider again the train example.

We do not need to know for certain that the

container will break and the lethal gas escape.

In fact it does not even have

to be probable, in the relevant sense of more probable than not, in order for
us to condemn the consigner's action.

risk of harm in this sort of case.

It is enough that there is a significant

It does not matter if the decreased well­

being of the consigner is certain and that the prospects of the passengers
quite uncertain, the resolution of the problem is nevertheless clearly in favour

of the so-called "speculative" and "unreliable".

But if we do not require

certainty of action to apply moral constraints in contemporary affairs, why

should we require a much higher standard of certainty in the future?

Why should

we require for the future, epistemic standards which the more familiar sphere of

moral action concerning the present and adjacent future does not need to meet?

The insistence on certainty as a necessary condition before moral consideration

can be given to the distant future, then, amounts to an eipstemic double standard.
But such an epistemic double standard, proposed in explaining the difference

between the present and the future and to justify ignoring future peoples

interests, in fact cannot itself provide an explanation of the differences,
since it already presupposes different standards of certainty appropriate to
each class, which difference is in turn in need of justification.

The second uncertainty argument is a practical uncertainty argument,
that whatever our theoretical obligations to the future, we cannot in practice

take the interests of future people into account because uncertainty about
the distant future is so gross that we canmot determine what the likely

consequences of actions on it will be and therefore, however good our intentions
to the people of the distant future are, in practice we have no choice but to

ignore their interests.

Uncertainty is gross where certain incompatible

hypotheses are as good as one another and there is no rational ground for
choosing between them.
this way:-

The second uncertainty argument can be put alternatively

If moral principles are. like other principles, implicational in form,

that is of such forms as "if x has character h then x is wrong, for every
(action) x”, then what the argument claims is that we cannot ever obtain the
information about future actions which would enable us to detach the

antecedent of the implication.

So even if moral principles theoretically

apply to future people, in practice they cannot be applied to obtain clear
conclusions or directions concerning contemporary action action of the

It is

wrong to do x” type.
Many of the assumptions of the second argument can be conceded.


the distant future really is so grossly uncertain that in every case it is
impossible to determine in any way that is better than chance what the effects of

present action will be, and whether any given action will help or hinder future
people, then moral principles, although they may apply theoretically to the

future, will in practice not be applicable to obtain any clear conclusions about
how to act.

on action.

Hence the distant future will impose no practical moral constraints

However the argument is factually incorrect in assuming that the

future always is so grossly uncertain or indeterminate.

Admittedly there is often

a high degree of uncertainty concerning the distant future, but as a matter of

(contingent) fact it is not always so gross or sweeping as the

argument has to assume.

There are some areas where uncertainty is not so great as

to exclude constraints on action, especially when account is taken of the point,
which was noticed in connection with the first argument, that complete certainty

is commonly not required for moral constraints and that all that may be needed in
some cases is the creation of a significant risk.

Again there is considerable

uncertainty about many factors which are not highly, or at all, morally relevant,
but this does not extend to many factors which are of much greater importance
to moral issues.

For example, we may not have any idea what the fashions will be

in a hundred years in names or footwear, or what flavours of ice cream people

will be eating if any, but we do have excellent reason to believe, especially

if we consider 3000 years of history, that what people there are in a hundred

years are likely to have material and psychic needs not entirely unlike our own,
that they will need a healthy biosphere for a good life; that like us they will
not be immune to radiation; that their welfare will not be enhanced by a high
incidence of cancer or genetic defects, by the destruction of resources, or the

elimination from the earth of that wonderful variety of non-human life which at
present makes it such a rich and interesting place.

For this sort of reason,

the second uncertainty argument should be rejected.

The case of nuclear waste

storage, and of uncertainty of the effects of it on future people, is one area

where uncertainty in morally relevant respects is not so great as to preclude
moral constraints on action, where we can ascertain if not absolute certainties
at least probabilities of the same sort of order as are considered sufficient for

the application of moral principles in parallel contemporary cases, 'especially
where spatially remote people are involved.

In particular there is not gross

indeterminacy or uncertainty; it is simply not true that incompatible hypotheses

about what may happen are as good as each other.

It is plain that nuclear waste

storage does impose significant risks of harm on future people, and, as is
evident from the train example, the significant risk of harm is enough in cases

of this type to make moral constraints applicable.
In terms of the defects of the preceding uncertainty arguments, we can

see the defects in a number of widely employed uncertainty arguments used to
write off probable or possible harm to future people as outside the scope of

proper consideration.

Most of these popular moves employ both of the uncertainty

arguments as suits the case, switching from one to the other in a way that is again
reminiscent of sceptical moves.

For example, we may be told that we cannot really

take account of future people because we cannot be sure that they will exist or
that their tastes and wants will not be completely different from our own, to the
point where they will not suffer from our exhaustion of resources or from the

things that would affect us.

But this is to insist upon complete certainty of a

sort beyond what is required for the present and immediate future, where there

is also commonly no guarantee that some disaster will not overtake those we are
morally committed to.

Again we may be told that there is no guarantee that

future people will be worthy of any efforts on our part, because they may be

Even if one is

morons or forever plugged into enjoyment or other machines.

prepared to accept the elitist approach presupposed -

according to which

only those who meet certain properly civilized or intellectual standards are
eligible for moral consideration — what we are being handed in such arguments

as a serious defeating consideration is again a mere outside possibility like the sceptic who says that solid-looking desk in front of us is perhaps only a
facade, not because he has any particular reason for doing so, but because he
hasn't looked around the back, drilled holes in it, etc. etc.

Neither the

contemporary nor the historical situation gives any positive reason for supposing
that a lapse into universal moronity or universal—pleasure-machine escapism is

a serious possibility, as opposed to a logical possibility.

We can contrast with

these mere logical possibilities the very real historically supportable risks

of escape of nuclear waste or decline

of a civilisation through destruction

of its resource base.

The possibilities just considered in these uncertainty arguments of

sceptical character are not real possibilities.

Another argument which may

consider a real possibility, but still does not succeed in showing that it is

acceptable to proceed with an action which would appear to be harmful to future
people, is often introduced in the nuclear waste case.

This is the argument that

future people may discover a rigorously safe and permanent storage method for

nuclear wastes before they are damaged by escaped waste material.

Let us grant

for the sake of the argument that this is a real possibility (though physical
arguments may show that it is not).

This still does not affect the fact that there

is a significant risk of serious damage and that the creation of a significant
risk is enough to rule out an action of this type as morally impermissible.

In just

the same way, future people may discover a cure for cancer: that this appears to
be a live possibility, and not merely a logical possibility, does not make the
action of the firm earlier discussed, of producing a substance likely to cause
cancer in future people, morally admissible.

The fact that there was a real

possibility of future people avoiding the harm would show

that actions of these

sorts were admissible only if what was required for inadmissibility was certainty

of harm or a very high probability of it.

In such cases before such actions could


be considered admissible what would be required is far more than a possibility,
real or not
- it is at least the availability of an applicable, safe, and

rigorously tested, not merely speculative, technique for achieving it, something
that future people could reasonably be expected to apply to protect themselves.
The strategy of these and other uncertainty arguments is fairly clear then,
and may be brought out by looking yet again at the train example where the consigner

says that he cannot be expected to take account of the effect of his actions on
the passengers because they may find an effective way to deal with his parcel or
some lucky or unlucky accident may occur, e.g. the train may break down and they

may all change to a different transport leaving the parcel behind, or the train

may crash killing all the passengers before the container gets a chance to leak.

These are all possibilities of course, but there is no positive reason to believe
that they are any more than that, that is they are not live possibilities.


strategy is to stress such remote possibilities in order to create the false
impression that there is gross uncertainty about the future, that the real

possibility that the container will break should be treated in the same way as
these mere logical possibilities, that uncertainty about the future is so great
as to preclude the consigner’s taking account of the passengers’ welfare and the

real possibility of harm from his parcel and thereby to excuse his action.


related strategy is to stress a real possibility, such as finding a cure for

cancer, and thereby imply that this removes the case for applying moral constraints.
This move implicitly makes the assumptions of the first argument, that certainty

of harm, or at least a very high probability of harm is required before an action

can be judged morally inadmissible, and the point of stressing the real possibility
of avoidance of damage is to show that this allegedly required high degree of

certainty or probability cannot be attained.

That is, the strategy draws

attention to some real uncertainty implying that this is sufficient to defeat the

application of moral constraints.

But, as we have seen, this is often not so.

Closely related to uncertainty arguments are arguments premissed on the
indeterminacy of the future.

In particular it is argued that the indeterminacy,

for example, with respect to the number and exact character of people at future

times, would at least prevent the interest of future people being taken into
account where there is a conflict with the present.

Since their numbers are

indeterminate and their interests unknown how, it is asked, can we weigh their
competing claims against those of the present and immediate future where this

information is available in a more or less accurate form?

The question is raised

particularly by problems of sharing fixed quantities of resources among present

and future people, for example oil, when the numbers of the latter are indeterminate.
Such problems are indeed difficult, but they are not resolved by ignoring the

claims of the future, any more than the problems raised by the need to take
account in decision-making of factors difficult to quantify are resolved by

ignoring such factors.

Nor are distributional problems as large and

representative of a class of moral problems concerning the future as the tendency

to focus on them would suggest.

It can be conceded that there will be cases

where the indeterminacy of aspects of the future will make conflicts very
difficult to resolve

or indeed irresoluble - a realistic ethical theory will

not deliver a decision procedure - but there will equally be other conflict
cases where the level of indeterminacy does not hinder resolution of the issue,
e.g. the train example which is a conflict case of a type.

In particular,

there will be many cases which are not solved by weighing numbers, numbers of

interests, or whatever, cases for which one needs to know only the most general
probable characteristics of future people.
The crucial question which emerges is then:

are. there any features of

future people which would disqualify them from full moral consideration or
reduce their claims to such below those of present people?
principle None.

The answer is :


Prima facie, moral principles are universalisable, and lawlike,

in that they apply independently of position in space or in time, for example.
But universalisability of principles is an outcome of those ethical theories

which are capable of dealing satisfactorily with the present:

in other words, a

theory that did not allow properly for the future would be found to have defects
as regards the present, to deal unjustly or unfairly with some present people,

e.g. those remotely located, those outside some select subgroup, such as (white­
skinned) humans, etc.

The only candidates for characteristics that would fairly

rule out future people are the logical features we have been looking at, such

as uncertainty and indeterminacy; but, as we have argued, it would be far too
sweeping to see these features as affecting the moral claims of future people in a

general way.

These special features only affect certain sorts of cases (e.g.

the determination of best probable or' practical course of action given only

present information).

In particular, they do not affect cases of the sort

being considered, nuclear development, where highly determinate or certain

information about the numbers and characteristics of the class likely to be

harmed is not required, nor is certainty of damage.
To establish obligations to the future a full universalizability

principle is not required : it is enough that the temporal position of a person
cannot affect his entitlement to just and fair treatment, to full moral
inversely, that it is without basis to discriminate morally

against a person in virtue of his temporal position.

As a result of this


universalizability, there are the same general obligations to future people as

to the present;

and thus there is the same obligation to take account of them

and their interests in what we do, to be careful in our actions, to take
account of the probability (and not just the certainty) of our actions causing

harm or damage, and to see, other things being equal, that we do not act so
as to rob them of what is necessary for the chance of a good life.

and indeterminacy do not relieve us of these obligations.


If in a closely

comparable case concerning the present the creation of a significant risk is

enough to rule out an action as immoral, and there are no independent grounds

for requiring greater certainty of

harm in the future case under consideration, then futurity alone will not

provide, adequate grounds for proceeding with the action, thus discriminating
against future people.

Accordingly we cannot escape, through appeal to

futurity, the conclusion already tentatively reached, that proposals for nuclear

development in the present and likely future state of technology and practices

for future waste disposal are immoral.
Before we consider (in section VII.) the remaining escape route from this
conclusion, through appeal to overriding circumstances, it is important to
pick up the further case (which heavily reinforces the. tentative conclusion)

against nuclear development, since much of it relies on ethical principles
similar to those that underlie obligations to the future, and since it too

is commonly met by similar appeal to extenuating circumstances.
ethical problems with nuclear power are by no means confined to future creatures.

Just as remoteness in time does not erode obligations or entitlements to just
treatment, neither does location in space, or a particular geographical position.
First of all, the problem of nuclear waste disposal raises serious questions of

distributive justice not only across time, across generations, but also across


Is one state or region entitled to dump its radioactive pollution in

another state’s or region’s yard or waters?

When that region receives no due

compensation (whatever that would amount to, in such a case), and the people

do not agree (though the leaders imposed upon them might)?

The answer, and the

arguments underpinning the answer, are both like those already given in arguing

to the tentative conclusion concerning the injustice of imposing radioactive
wastes upon future people.

But the cases are not exactly the same: USA and Japan

cannot endeavour to discount peoples of the Pacific in whose regions they propose
to drop some of their radioactive pollution in quite the same way they can

discount, people of two centuries hence.

(But what this consideration really

reveals is yet another flaw in the idea that entitlement to just treatment can
be discounted over time .)
Ethical issues of distributive justice, as to equity, concern not only
the spatio-temporal location of nuclear waste, but also arise elsewhere in the
assessment of nuclear development; in particular, as regards the treatment of

those in the neighbourhood of reactors, and, differently, as regards the
distribution of (alleged) benefits and costs from nuclear power across nations.
People living or working in the vicinity of a nuclear reactor are subject to

special costs and risks: firstly, radioactive pollution, due to the fact that
reactors discharge radioactive materials into the air and water near the plant,



and secondly catastrophic accidents, such as (steam) explosion of a reactor.


immediate question is whether such costs and risks can be imposed, with any
ethical legitimacy, on these people, who frequently have little or no say in

their imposition, and who have mostly not been informed of any choices regarding

the "risk/benefit tradeoffs” of nuclear technology.

That they are so imposed,

without local participation, indeed often without local input or awareness as

with local opposition, reveals one part of the antidemocratic face of nuclear
development, a part that nuclear development shares however with other largescale polluting industry, where local participation and questions, fundamental

to a genuine democracy of regional determination and popular sovereignty, are

commonly ignored or avoided.
The ’’normal” emission, during plant operation, of low level radiation
carries carcinogenic and mutagenic costs.

While there are undoubtedly costs,

there remains, however, substantial disagreement over the likely number of cancers

and precise extent of genetic damage induced by exposure to such radiation, over
the local health costs involved.

Under the Old Paradigm, which (illegitimately)

permits free transfer of costs and risks from one person to another, the ethical

issue directly raised is said to be: what extent of cancer and genetic damage,

if any, is permissibly traded for the advantages of nuclear power, and under

what conditions?

Under the Old Paradigm the issue is then translated into

decision-theoretic questions, such as to ’how to employ risk/benefit analysis
as a prelude to government regulation’ and ’how to determine what is an
acceptable level of risk/safety for the public.

The Old Paradigm attitude, reflected in the public policy of some countries
that have such policies, is that the economic benefits conferred by allowing
radiation emissions outweigh the costs of an increase in cancer and genetic

An example will reveal that such evaluations, which rely for what

appeal they have on a dubious utilitarianism, will not pass muster.

It is a

pity about Aunt Ethyl getting cancer, but it’s nice to have this air conditioner

working in summer.

Such frequently trivial and rather inessential benefits,

which may be obtained alternatively, e.g. by modification of houses, in no way

compensate for the agony of cancer.

The point is that the costs to one party

are not justified, especially when such benefits to other parties can be
alternatively obtained without such awful costs, and morally indefensible, being

People, minorities, whose position is particularly compromised are those

who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. (Children, for example, are in a


particularly vulnerable position, since they are several times more likely to
contract cancer through exposure than normal adults).

In USA, such people bear

a risk of cancer and genetic damage of as much as 50 times that borne by the
population at large.

A non-negligible percentage (in excess of 3% of those

exposed for 30 years) of people in the area will die, allegedly for the sake
of the majority who are benefitted by nuclear power production (allegedly,

for the real reasons for nuclear development do not concern this silent



charm the argument from overriding benefits had, even

under the Old Paradigm, vanishes once it is seen that there are alternative,

and in several respects less expensive, ways of delivering the real benefits
There are several other tricks used in showing that tiie imposition of

radiation on minorities, most of whom have little or no genuine voice in the
location of reactors in their environment and cannot move away without serious

losses, is quite (morally) acceptable.

One cheaper trick, deployed by the US

Atomic Energy Commission,^ is to suppose that it is permissible to double,
through nuclear technology, the level of (natural) radiation that a population


received with apparently negligible consequences, the argument being that

the additional amount (being equivalent to the "natural” level) is also likely

to have negligible consequences.

The increased amounts of radiation - with

their large man-made component - are then accounted normal, and, of course,

so it is then claimed, what is normal is morally acceptable.
in this argument is sound.

None of the steps

Drinking one bottle of wine a day may have no ill-

effects, whereas drinking two a day certainly may affect a person s well-being,
and while the smaller intake may have become normal for the person, the larger
one will, under such conditions, not be.

Finally, what is or has become normal,

e.g. two murders or twenty cancers a day in a given city, may be far from acceptable

In fact, even the USA, which has strict standards by comparison with most
other countries with planned nuclear reactors, permits radiation emissions very
substantially in excess of the standards laid down; so the emission situation is

worse than mere consideration of the standards would disclose.

Furthermore, the

monitoring of the standards "imposed" is entrusted to the nuclear operators
themselves, scarcely disinterested parties.

Public policy is determined not so

as to guarantee public health, but rather to serve as a
private nuclear operations proceed relatively unhampered.

public pacifier



While radioactive emissions are an ordinary feature of reactor operation,
breakdown is, hopefully, not: an accident of magnitude is accounted, by official

definition, an ’extraordinary nuclear occurrence’.

But such accidents can happen,


and almost have on several occasions (the most notorious being Three Mile Island).
If the cooling and emergency core cooling systems fail in American (light water)

then the core melts and ’containment failure’ is likely, with the

result that an area of 40,000 square miles could be radioactively contaminated.
In the event of the worst type of accident in a very small reactor, a steam
explosion in the reactor vessel, about 45,000 people would be killed instantly

and at least 100,000 would die as a result of the accident, property damages

would exceed $17 billion and an area the size of Pennsylvania would be destroyed.
Modern nuclear reactors are about five times the size of the reactor for which
these conservative US government figures are given :
the consequences of a

similar accident with a modern reactor would accordingly be much greater still.
The consigner in risking the lives, well-being and property of the

passengers on the train has acted inadmissibly.

Does a government-sponsored

private utility act in a way that is anything other than much less responsible
in siting a nuclear reactor in a community, in planting such a dangerous package

on the community train.

The answer will be No, if the analogy holds good and the

consigners’ action is, as we would ordinarily

suppose, inadmissible and irrespon­

The proponents of nuclear power have in effect argued to the contrary,

while at the same time endeavouring to shift the dispute out of the ethical arena

and into a technological dispute as to means (in accordance with the Old Paradigm).
It has been contended, firstly, what contrasts with the train example, that

there is no real possibility of a catastrophic nuclear accident.
Indeed in the
influential Rassmussen report “ - which was extensively used to support public
confidence in US nuclear fission technology - an even stronger, an incredibly
strong, improbability claim was stated: namely, the likelihood of a catastrophic

nuclear accident is so remote as to be Almost) impossible.

The main argument for

this claim derives from the assumptions and estimates of the report itself.


assumptions like the claim are undercut by nuclear incidents that came very close
to accidents, incidents which reflect what happens in a reactor rather better than
mathematical models.
As with the storage of nuclear wastes, so with the operation of nuclear

reactors, it is important to look at what happens in the actual world of
technological limitatioms and human error, of waste leakage and reactor incidents

and quite possibly accidents, not in an ideal world far removed from the actual,

a technological dream world where there is no real possibility of a nuclear


In such an ideal nuclear world, where waste disposal were fool-proof

and reactors were accident-proof, things would no doubt be morally different.

But we do not live in such a world.

According to the Rasmussen report its calculation of extremely low accident
probabilities is based upon reasonable mathematical and technological assumptions

and is methodologically sound.

This is very far from being the case.

The under­

lying mathematical methods, variously called "fault tree analysis" and

"reliability estimating techniques", are unsound, because they exclude as


credible" possibilities or as "not significant" branches that are real

possibilities, which may well be realised in the real world.

It is the

eliminations that are otherworldly.

In fact the methodology and data of the report
has been soundly and decisively criticized.
And it has been shown that there

is a real possibility, a non-negligible probability, of a serious accident.

It is contended, secondly, that even if there is a non-negligible
probability of a reactor accident, still it is acceptable, being of no greater

order than risks of accidents that are already socially accepted.

here we

encounter again that insidious engineering approach to morality built into

models of an economic cast, e.g. benefit-cost balance sheets, risk assessment

models, etc.

Risk assessment, a sophistication of transaction or trade-off

models, purports to provide a comparison between the relative risks attached to
different options, e.g. energy options, which settles their ethical status.

The following lines of argument are encountered in a risk assessment as applied
to energy options:


if option a imposes costs on fewer people than option b then option a is

preferable to option b;


option a involves a total net cost in terms of cost to people (e.g. deaths,

injuries, etc.) which is less than that of option b, which is already accepted;
therefore option a is acceptable.
For example, the number likely to be killed by nuclear power stations is less than

the. likely number killed by cigarette smoking or in road accidents, which are
accepted: so nuclear power stations are acceptable.

A little reflection reveals

that this sort of risk assessment argument involves the same kind of fallacy
as transaction models.

It is far too simple-minded, and it ignores distributional

and other relevant aspects of the context.

In order to obtain an ethical

assessment we should need a much fuller picture and we should need to know at
least these things:- do the costs and benefits go to the same parties; and is

the person who undertakes the risks also the person who receives the benefits or

primarily, as in driving or cigarette smoking, or are the costs imposed on other

parties who do not benefit?

It is only if the parties are the same in the case of

the options compared, and there are no such distributional problems, that a

comparison on such a basis would be valid.

This is rarely the case, and it is

not so in the case of risk assessments of energy options.

Secondly, does the

person incur the risk as a result of an activity which he knowingly undertakes

in a situation where he has a reasonable choice, knowing it entails the risk,

etc., and is the level of risk in proportion to the level of the relevant
activity, e.g. as in smoking?

Thirdly, for what reason is the risk imposed:

is it for a serious or a relatively trivial reason?

A risk that is ethically

acceptable for a serious reason may not be ethically acceptable for a trivial

Both the arguments (i) and (ii) are often employed in trying to justify

nuclear power. The second argument (ii) involves the fallacies of the first (i)
and an additional set, namely that of forgetting that the health risks in the
nuclear sense are cumulative, and already high if not, some say, too high.
The maxim "If you want the benefits you have to accept the costs" is

one thing and the maxim "If I want the benefits then you have to accept the

costs (or some of them at least)" is another and very different thing.

It is

a widely accepted moral principle, already argued for by way of examples and
already invoked, that one is not, in general, entitled to simply transfer costs

of a significant kind arising fron an activity which benefits oneself onto other

parties who are not involved in the activity and are not beneficiaries.


transfer principle is especially clear in cases where the significant costs

include an effect on life or health or a risk thereof, and where the benefit to

the benefitting party is of a noncrucial or dispensible nature, because, e.g.
it can be substituted for or done without.

Thus, for instance, one is not

usually entitled to harm, or risk harming, another in the process of benefitting

Suppose, for another example, we consider a village which produces, as a

result of an industrial process by which it lives , a noxious waste material which

is expensive and difficult to dispose of and yet creates a risk to life and health

if undisposed of.

Instead of giving up their industrial process and turning to

some other way of making a living such as farming the surrounding countryside,
they persist with this way of life but ship their problem on a one-way delivery

service, on the train, to the next village.

The inhabitants of this village are

then forced to face the problem either of undertaking the expensive and difficult
disposal process oor of sustaining risks to their own lives and health or else
leaving the village and their livelihoods.
transfer of costs as morally unacceptable.

Most of us would see this kind of

From this arises a necessary condition for energy options: that to be

morally acceptable they should not involve the transfer of significant costs or
risks of harm onto parties who are not involved, do not use the energy source or

do not benefit correspondingly from its use.

Included in the scope of this

condition are not only future people and future generations (those of the next

villages) but neighbours of nuclear reactors, especially, as in third world
countries, neighbours who are not nuclear power users.

The distribution of

costs and damage in such a fashion, i.e. on to non-beneficiaries is a
characteristic of certain widespread and serious forms of pollution, and is one

of its most objectionable moral features.

It is a corollary of the condition that we should not hand the world on to
our successors in substantially worse shape than we received it - the l_ramsmission.


For if we did then that would be a significant transfer of costs.

(The corollary can be independently argued for on the basis of certain ethical


The problems already discussed by no means exhaust the

environmental, health and safety risks and costs in^or arising from?the nuclear

fuel cycle.

The full fuel cycle includes many stages both before and after

reactor operation, apart from waste disposal, namely mining, milling, conversion,
enrichment and preparation, reprocessing spent fuel, and transportation of


Several of these stages involve hazards.

Unlike the special risks

in the nuclear cycle - of sabotage of plants, of theft of fissionable material,
and of the further proliferation of nuclear armaments - these hazards have

parallels, if not exact equivalents, in other very polluting methods of generating

power, e.g. ’workers in the uranium mining industry sustain ^the same risk of
fatal and nonfatal injury as workers in the coal industry".38 Furthermore, the

various (often serious) hazards encountered in working in some sectors of

uranium fabrication should be differently viewed from those resulting from location


for instance from already living where a reactor is built or wastes are dumped.

For an occupation is, in principle at

any rate, chosen (as is occupational

relocation), and many types of hazards incurred in working with radioactive

material are now known in advance of choice of such an occupation, with where
one already lives things are very different.

The uranium-miner s choice of

occupation can be compared with the airline pilot’s choice, whereas the Pacific

Islander’s "fact" of location cannot be.

The social issue of arrangements that

contract occupational choices and opportunities and often at least ease people

into hazardous occupations such as uranium or tin or coal mining (where the

risks, in contrast to airline piloting, are mostly not duly compensated), while
very important, is not an issue newly produced by nuclear associated occupations.


Other social and environmental problems - though endemic where large-scale

industry operates in societies that are highly inegalitarian and include sectors
that are far from affluent - are more irdtimately linked with the nuclear power

Though pollution is a common and generally undesirable component of

large-scale industrial operation, radioactive pollution, such as uranium mining
for instance produces, is especially a legacy of nuclear development, and a

specially undesirable one, as enormous rectification estimates for dead radio­

active lands and waterways reveal.

Though sabotage is a threat to many large

industries, so that modern factory complexes are often guarded like concentration
camps (but from us on the outside), sabotage of a nuclear reactor can have dire
consequences, of a different order of magnitude from most industrial sabotage
(consider again the effects of core meltdown).

Though theft of material from more

dubious enterprises such as munitions works can pose threats to populations at

large and can assist terrorism, no thefts for allegedly peaceful enterprises

pose problems of the same order as theft of fissionable material.

No other

industry produces materials which so readily permit of fabrication into such
massive explosives.

No other industry is, to sum it up, so vulnerable on so

many fronts.

In part to reduce it£ vulnerability, in part because of its long and

continuing association with military activities, the nuclear industry is subject
to, and encourages, several practices which (certainly given their scale) run

counter to basic features of free and open societies, crucial features such as
personal liberty, freedom of association and of expression, and free access to


These practices include secrecy, restriction of information,

formation of special police and guard forces, espionage, curtailment of civil


Already operators of nuclear installations are given extraordinary
powers, in vetting employees, to investigate the background and
activities not only of employees but also of their families and
sometimes even of their friends. The installations themselves
become armed camps, which especially offends British sensibilities.
The U.K. Atomic Energy (Special Constables) Act of 1976 created a
special armed force to guard nuclear installations and made it
answerable ... to the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority.
■JLhee-e- developments^in the IJnd t^d

—and worjc in West Gcmafiy-ji presage

along with nuclear development increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic


That nuclear development appears to force such political consequences

tells heavily against it.


Nuclear development is further indicted politically by the direct
connection of nuclear power with nuclear war.

It is fortunately true that

ethical questions concerning nuclear war - for example, whether a nuclear war

is justified, or just, under any circumstances, and if so what circumstances -

are distinguishable from those concerning nuclear power.

Undoubtedly, however,

the spread of nuclear power is substantially increasing the technical means

for engaging in nuclear war and so, to that extent, the opportunity for, and
chances of, nuclear engagement.

Since nuclear wars are never accountable

positive goods, but are at best the lesser of major evils, nuclear wars are

always highly ethically undesirable.

The spread

of nuclear power accordingly

expands the opportunity for, and chances of, highly undesirable consequences.
Finally the latter, so increasing these chances and opportunities, is itself
undesirable, and therefore what leads to it, nuclear development, is also

The details and considerations that fill out this argument,

from nuclear war against nuclear development, are many.

They are firstly

technical, that it is a relatively straightforward and inexpensive matter to
make nuclear explosives given access to a nuclear power plant? secondly political,
that nuclear engagements once instituted

likely to escalate and that those

who control (or differently are likely to force access to) nuclear power plants
do not shrink from nuclear confrontation and are certainly prepared to toy with

nuclear engagement (up to ’’strategic nuclear strikes” at least); and thirdly
ethical, that wars invariably have immoral consequences, such as massive

damage to involved parties, however high sounding their justification is.
Nuclear wars are certain to be considerably worse as regards damage inflicted

than any previous wars (they are likely to be much worse than all previous
wars put together), because of the enormous destructive power of nuclear
weapons, and the extent of spread of their radioactive effects, and because

of the expected rapidity and irreversibility of any such confrontations.

The supporting considerations are, fourthly, drawn from decision theory, and
are designed to show that the chances of such undesirable outcomes is itself

The core argument is in brief this (the argument will be

elaborated in section VIII):- Energy choice between alternative options is
a case of decision making under uncertainty, because in particular of the gross

uncertainties involved in nuclear development.

In cases of this type the

appropriate rational procedure is to compare worst consequences of each

alternative, to reject those alternatives with the worst of these worst

consequences (this is a pretty uncontroversial part of the maximin rule which
enjoins selection of the alternative with the best worst consequences).


nuclear alternative has, in particular because of the real possibility of a nuclear
war, the worst worst consequences and is accordingly a particularly undesirable




As with nuclear war, so given the cumulative case against nuclear

development, only one justificatory route remains open, that of appeal to

important overriding circumstances.

That appeal, to be ethically acceptable,

must go far beyond merely economic considerations.

For, as already observed,

the consigner’s action cannot be justified by purely economistic arguments,
such as that his profits would rise, the firm or the village would be more

prosperous, or by appealing to the fact that some possibly uncomfortable
changes would otherwise be needed.

The transfer principle on which this

assessment was based, that one was not usually entitled to create a serious

risk to others for these sorts of reasons, applied more generally and, in
particular, applied to the nuclear case.

For this reason the economistic

arguments which are those most commonly advanced under the Old Paradigm to promote
nuclear development - e.g. cheapness, efficiency, profitability for electricity

utilities, and the need otherwise for uncomfortable changes such as restructuring

of employment, investment and consumption - do not even begin to show that the
nuclear alternative is an acceptable one.

Even if these economistic assumptions

about benefits to present people were correct ~ it will be contended that most of
them are not - the arguments would fail because economics (like the utilitarianism

from which it characteristically derives) has to operate within the framework of
moral constraints, and not vice versa.
What do have to be considered are however moral conflict arguments, that is

arguments to the effect that, unless the prima facie unacceptable (nuclear)
alternative is taken, some even more unacceptable alternative is the only

possible outcome, and

will ensue.

For example, in the train parable, the

consigner may argue that his action is justified because unless it is taken his
village will starve.

It is by no means clear that even such a justification

as this would be sufficient, especially where the risk to the passengers is
high, as the case seems to become one of transfer of costs and risks onto others,

but such a moral situation would no longer be so clearcut, and one would perhaps

hesitate to condemn any action taken in such circumstances.
Some of the arguments advanced to show moral conflict are based on competing
commitments to present people, and others on competing obligations to future people,

both of which are taken to override the obligations not to impose on the future

significant risk of serious harm.

The structure of such moral conflict arguments

is based crucially on the presentation of a genuine and exhaustive set of

alternatives (or at least practical alternatives) and upon showing that the only
alternatives to admittedly morally undesirable actions are even more undesirable


If some practical alternative which is not morally worse than the action to

be justified is overlooked, suppressed, or neglected in the argument - for
example, if in the village case it turns out that the villagers have another option

to starving or to the sending off of the parcel, namely earning a living in some

other way - then the argument is defective and cannot readily be patched.


such a suppression of practicable alternatives has occurred in the argument

designed to show that the alternatives to the nuclear option are even worse than
the option itself, and that there are other factual defects in these arguments

as well.

In short, the arguments depend essentially on the presentation of

false dichotomies.
A first argument, the poverty argument, is that there is an overriding
obligation to the poor, both the poor of the third world and the poor of

industrialised countries.

Failure to develop nuclear energy, it is often claimed,

would amount to denying them the opportunity to reach the standard of affluence

we currently enjoy and would create unemployment and poverty in the industrialised

The unemployment and poverty argument does not stand up to examination

either for the poor of the industrial countries or for those of the third world.

There is good evidence that large-scale nuclear energy will help to increase
unemployment and poverty in the industrial world, through the diversion of very
much available

capital into an industry which is not only an exceptionally

poor provider of direct employment, but also helps to reduce available jobs through
encouraging substitution of energy use for labour use.^ The argument that nuclear
energy is needed for the third world is even less convincing.

Nuclear energy is

both politically and economically inappropriate for the third world, since it

requires massive amounts of capital, requires numbers of imported scientists
and engineers, but creates negligible local employment, and depends for its
feasibility upon, what is largely lacking, established electricity transmission

systems and back-up facilities and sufficient electrical appliances to plug into

the system.

Politically it increases foreign dependence, adds to centralised

entrenched power and reduces the chance for change in the oppressive political
structures which are a large part of the problem.
The fact that nuclear energy
is not in the interests of the people of the third world does not of course
mean that it is not in the interests of, and wanted by, their rulers, the
westernised and often military elites in whose interests the economies of these

countries are usually organised, and wanted often for military purposes.


is not paternalistic to examine critically the demands these ruling elites may

make in the name of the poor.

The poverty argument is then a fraud.
help the poor.

Nuclear energy will not be used to

Both for the third world and for the industrialised countries

there are well-known energy-conserving alternatives and the practical option of

developing other energy sources, alternatives some of which offer far better
prospects for helping the poor.
It can no longer be pretended that there is no alternative to nuclear

development: indeed nuclear development is itself but a bridging, or stop-gap,
procedure on route to solar or perhaps fusion development.

And there are various

alternatives: coal and other fossil fuels, geothermal, and a range of solar

options (including as well as narrowly solar, wind, water, tidal and plant power),
each possibly in combination with conservation measures.
Despite the availability
of alternatives, it may still be pretended that nuclear development is necessary
for affluence (what will emerge is that it is advantageous for the power and

affluence of certain select groups).

Such an assumption really underlies part

of the poverty argument, which thus amounts to an elaboration of the trickledown argument (much favoured within the Old Paradigm setting).

For the argument

Nuclear development is necessary for (continuing and increasing)


Affluence inevitably trickles down to the poor.

development benefits the poor.

Therefore nuclear

First, the argument does not on its own show

anything specific about nuclear power: for it works equally well if ’energy'
is substituted for ’nuclear’.

It has also to be shoum, what the next major

argument will try to claim, that nuclear development is unique among energy
alternatives in increasing affluence.

The second assumption, that affluence

Inevitably trickles down, has now been roundly refuted, both by recent historical

data, which show increasing affluence (e.g. in terms of GNP averaged per capita)
coupled with increasing poverty in several countries, both developing and

developed, and through economic models which reveal how ’affluence” can increase
without redistribution occurring.

Another major argument advanced to show moral conflict appeals to a set
of supposedly overriding and competing obligations to future people.

We have,

it is said, a duty to pass on the immensely valuable things and institutions
which our culture has developed.

Unless our high-technology, high energy

industrial society is continued and fostered, our valuable institutions and
traditions will fall into decay or be swept away.

The argument is essentially

that without nuclear power, without the continued level of material wealth
it alone is assumed to make possible, the lights of our civilization will go out.

Future people will be the losers.



The lights-going-out argument does raise questions as to what is valuable

in our society, and of what characteristics are necessary for a good society.
But for the most part these large questions, which deserve much fuller
examination, can be avoided.

The reason is that the argument adopts an extremely

uncritical position with respect to present high-technology societies, apparently

assuming that they are uniformly and uniquely valuable.

It assumes that technologic

society is unmodifiable, that it cannot be changed in the direction of energy

conservation or alternative (perhaps high technology) energy sources without

It has to be accepted and assessed as a whole, and virtually unlimited

supplies of energy - such as nuclear and only nuclear power is alleged to furnish -

are essential to maintain this whole.
These assumptions are hard to accept.

The assumption that technological

society's energy patterns are unmodifiable is especially so — after all it has

survived events such as world wars which have required major social and technologic^
restructuring and consumption modification.

If western society's demands for energy

are totally unmodifiable without collapse, not only would it be committed to a
program of increasing destruction, but one might ask what use its culture could

be to future people who would very likely, as a consequence of this destruction,
lack the resource base which the argument assumes to be essential in the case of

contemporary society.
There is also difficulty with the assumption of uniform valuableness;

but if this is rejected the question becomes not: what is necessary to maintain
existing high-technological society and its political institutions, but rather,

what is necessary to maintain what is valuable in that society and the political

institutions which are needed to maintain those valuable things.

While it may be

easy to argue that high energy consumption centrally controlled is necessary to

maintain the political and economic status quo, it is not so easy to argue that it
is essential to maintain what is valuable, and it is what is valuable, presumably
that we have a duty to pass on to the future.

The evidence, for instance from history, is that no very high level of
material affluence or energy consumption is needed to maintain what is valuable.

There is good reason in fact to believe that a society with much lower energy and

resource consumption would better foster what is valuable than our own.

But even

if a radical change in these directions is independently desirable, as we should
argue, it is not necessary to presuppose such a change, in the short term at least,
in order to see that the assumptions of the lights-going-out argument are wrong.

No enormous reduction of well-being is required to consume less energy than at

present, and certainly far less than the large increase over present levels of
consumption which is assumed in the usual economic case for nuclear energy.

What the nuclear strategy is really designed to do then is not to prevent the

lights going out in western civilisation, but to enable the lights to go on
burning all the time - to maintain and even increase the wattage output of
the Energy Extravaganza.
In fact there is good reason to think that, far from the high energy

consumption society fostering what is valuable, it will, especially if energy

is obtained by nuclear fission means, be positively inimical to it.

A society

which has become heavily dependent upon an extremely high centralised, controlled
and garrisoned, capital-

and expertise-intensive energy source, must be one

which is highly susceptible to entrenchment of power, and one in which the forces

which control this energy source, whether capitalist or bureaucratic, can exert

enormous power over the political system and over people’s lives, even more
than they do at present.

Such a society would, almost inevitably tend to become

authoritarian and increasingly anti-democratic, as an outcome, among other

things, of its response to the threat posed by dissident groups in the nuclear

Nuclear development may thus help in passing on to future generations

some of the worst aspects of our society - the consumerism, alienation,
destruction of nature, and latent authoritarianism - while many valuable

aspects, such as the degree of political freedom and those opportunities for
personal and collective autonomy which exist, would be lost or diminished:
political freedom, for example, is a high price to pay for consumerism and

energy extravagance.

But it is not the status quo, but what is valuable in

our society, presumably, that we have some obligation to pass on to the future,

and if possible enhance.
Again, as in the case of the poverty arguments, clear alternatives,

alternative social, economic and political choices, which do not involve such
unacceptable consequences, are available.

The alternative to the high technology-

nuclear option is not a return to the cave, the loss of all that is valuable,
but either the adoption of an available alternative such as coal for power or,
rather, the development of alternative technologies and lifestyles which offer
far greater scope for the maintenance and further development of what is
valuable in our society than the highly centralised nuclear option.

The lights-

going-out argument, as a moral conflict argument, accordingly fails, because it

also is based on a false dichotomy.


Thus the further escape route, the appeal to moral conflict, is, like the

If then we apply - as we have argued we should -

appeal to futurity, closed.

the same standards of morality to the future as we ought to acknowledge for the

present, the conclusion that large-scale nuclear development is a crime against

the future is inevitable.

Closed also, in the same way, are the escape routes

to other arguments — from reactor melt-down, radiation emissions, and so on for rejecting nuclear development as morally unacceptable, for saying that it is

not only a moral crime against the distant future but also a crime against the
present and immediate future.

In sum, nuclear development is morally

unacceptable on several grounds.

A corollary is that only political arrangements

that are morally unacceptable will support the impending nuclear future.

The argument thus far, to anti-nuclear conclusions, has relied upon, and

defended premisses that would be rejected under the Old Paradigm; for example,
such theses as that the interests and utilities of future people are not
discounted (in contrast to the temporally-limited utilitarianism of market-

centred economic theory), and that serious costs and risks to health and life

cannot admissibly be simply transferred to uninvolved parties (in contrast

to the transfer and limited compensation assumptions of mainstream economic

To close the case, arguments will now be outlined which are designed

to show that even within the confines of the Old Paradigm, choosing the nuclear

future is not a rational choice.
Large-scale nuclear development is not just something that happens, it
requires, on a continuing basis, an immense input of capital and energy.


investment calls for substantial reasons; for the investment should be, on
Old Paradigm assumptions, the best among feasible alternatives to given economic

Admittedly so much capital has already been invested in nuclear fission

research and development, in marked contrast to other newer rival sources or

power, that there is strong political incentive to proceed - as distinct from

requisite reasons for further capital and energy inputs.

The reasons can be

divided roughly into two groups, front reasons, which are the reasons given

(out), and which are, in accordance with Old Paradigm percepts, publicly

economic (in that they are approved for public consumption), and the real
reasons, which involve private economic factors and matters of power and social.

The main argument put up, an economic growth argument, upon which

variations are played, is the following version of the lights-going-out argument
(with economic growth duly standing in for material wealth, and even for what is

Nuclear power is necessary to sustain economic growth.



growth is desirable (for all the usual reasons, e.g. to increase the size of
the pie, to avoid or postpone redistribution problems, and connected social

Therefore nuclear power is desirable.
The first premiss is
part of US energy policy,
and the second premiss is supplied by standard

unrest, etc.).

economics textbooks.

But both premisses are defective, the second because

what is valuable in economic growth can be achieved by selective economic growth,
which jettisons the heavy social and environmental costs carried by unqualified

economic growth.More to the point, since the second premiss is an assumption

of the dominant paradigm, the first premiss (or rather an appropriate and less

vulnerable restatement of it) fails even on Old Paradigm standards.

For of course

nuclear power is not necessary given that there are other, perhaps costlier

The premiss usually defended is some elaboration of the premiss :

Nuclear power is the economically best way to sustain economic growth, ’economically

best’ being filled out as 'most efficient’, ’cheapest’, ’having most favourable
benefit-cost ratio’, etc.

Unfortunately for the argument, and for nuclear

development schemes, nuclear power is none of these things

a good deal of economic cheating (easy to do) is done.

decisively, unless

Much data, beginning with

the cancellation of nuclear plant orders, can^ be assembled to show as much.


the argument requires a true premiss, not an uncertain or merely possible one, if
it is to succeed and detachment is to be permitted at all, and evidently true


if the argument is to be decisive.

The data to be summarised splits into two parts, public (governmental)
analyses, and private (utility) assessments.

Virtually all available data

concerns the USA; in Europe, West and East, true costs of uniformly "publicly^
controlled” nuclear power

are generally not divulged.

Firstly, the capital costs of nuclear plants, which have been rising much

more rapidly than inflation, now exceed those of coal-fired plants.


has estimated that capital costs of a nuclear generator (of optimal capacity)
will exceed comparable costs of a coal-fired unit by about 26% in 1985.
capital costs are only one part of the equation that now tell

against private utility purchase of new nuclear plants.

rather decisively

Another main factor

is the poor performance and low reliability of nuclear generators.

Coney showed

that nuclear plants can only generate about half the electricity they were
designed to produce, and that when Atomic Energy Commission estimates of relative
costs of nuclear and coal power, which assumed that both operated at 80% of design

capacity, were adjusted accordingly, nuclear generated power proved to be far more

expensive than estimated.

The discrepancy between actual and estimated


is especially important because a plant with an actual capacity factor of 55%

produced electricity at a cost about 25% higher than if the plant had performed
at the manufacturers’ projected capacity rate of 70-75%.

The low reliability

of nuclear plants (per kilowatt output) as compared with the superior
reliability of smaller coal-fired plants adds to the case, on conventional economic

grounds of efficiency and product production costs, against nuclear power.
These unfavourable assessments are from a private (utility) perspective,

before the very extensive public subsidization of nuclear power is duly taken
into account.

The main subsidies are through research and development, by way

of insurance (under the important but doubtfully constitutional Price-Anderson
Act^), in enrichment, and in waste management.
It has been estimated that

charging such costs to the electricity consumer would increase electricity bills
for nuclear power by at least 25% (and probably much more).
When official US cost/benefit analyses favouring nuclear power over

coal are examined, it is found that they inadmissibly omit several of the public
costs involved in producing nuclear power.

For example, the analyses ignore

waste costs on the quite inadmissible ground that it is not known currently
what the costs involved are.

But even using actual waste handling costs (while

wastes await storage) is enough to show that coal power is preferable to nuclear.
When further public costs, such as insurance against accident and for radiation
damage, are duly taken into account, the balance is swung still further in

favour of alternatives to nuclear and

against nuclear power.

In short, even on

proper Old Paradigm accounting, the nuclear alternative should be rejected.

Nuclear development is not economical, it certainly seems; it has been
kept going not through its clear economic viability, but by massive public
subsidization, of several types.

In USA, to take a main example where

information is available, nuclear development is publicly supported through
heavily subsidized or sometimes free research and development, .th«xugh the
Price-Anderson Act^ which sharply limits both private and public liability,

i.e. which in effect provided the insurance subsidy making corporate nuclear
development economically feasible, and through government agreement to handle all
radioactive wastes.

While the Old Paradigm strictly construed cannot support uneconomical

developments, contemporary liberalisation of the Paradigm does allow for
uneconomic projects, seen as operated in the public interest, in such fields as
social welfare.

Duly admitting social welfare and some



in the distribution of wealth (not necessarily of pollution) leadsjtne modern
version of the Old Paradigm, called the-Modified Old Paradigm.

The main

changes from the Old Paradigm are (as with state socialism) as emphasis of
economic factors, e.g. individual self-help is down-played, wealth is to a
small extent redistributed, e.g. through taxation, market forces are regulated

or displaced (not in principle eliminated, as with state socialism).

Now it

has been contended - outrageous though it should now seem - that nuclear power

is in the public interest as a means to various sought public ends, for example,

aparL^from those already mentioned such as energy for growth and cheap
electricity, and such as plentiful power for heating and cooking and appliance
brown-outs and the like.1

use, avoidance of shortages, rationing,


alternative power sources, such as coal, could serve s^me ends given power was

supplied with suitable extravagance, the

argument has again to show that the

choice of nuclear power over other alternatives is best in the requisite
respects, in serving the public interest.

Such an argument is a matter for

decision theory, under which head cost-benefit analyses which rank alternatives
also fall as special cases.

Decision theory purports to cover theoretically the field of choice

between alternatives; it is presented as the

theory which

deals with the^

problem of choosing one. course of action among several possible courses .

Thus the choice of alternative modes of energy production, the energy choice

problem, becomes an exercise

in decision theory; and the nuclear choice is

often’justified” in Old Paradigm terms through appeal to decision theory.

But though decision theory is in principle comprehensive, as soon as it is put
to work in such practical cases as energy choice,

it is very considerably

contracted in scope, several major assumptions are surreptitiously imported,

and what one is confronted with is a


theory drastically

pruned down to conform with the narrow utilitarianism of mainstream economic

The extent of reduction can be glimpsed by comparing, to take one

important example, a general optimisation model for decision (where
uncertainty is not gross) with comparable decision theory methods, such as the

expected utility model.

The general model for best choice among alternatives

specifies maximisation of expected value subject to constraints, which may


ethical constraints excluding certain alternatives under given


Expected utility

models demote value to utility, assuming thereby

measurability and transference properties that may not obtain, and eliminate

constraints altogether (absorbing what is forbidden, for example, as having a
high disutility, but one that can be compensated for nonetheless).

Thus, in


ethical constraints against nuclear development are replaced, in

Old Paradigm fashion, by allowance in principle for compensation for damage

Still it is with decision making in Old Paradigm terms that we

are now embroiled, so no longer at issue are the defective (neo-classical)

assumptions made in the theory, for example as to the assessment of

everything to be taken into account through utility (which comes down to
monetary terms ■ everything worth accounting has a price), and as to the legitimacy

of transferring with limited compensation risks and costs to involved parties.
The energy choice problem is, so it has commonly been argued in the

assumed Old Paradigm framework, a case of decision under uncertainty.

It is not a

case of decision under risk (and so expected utility models are not applicable),

because some possible outcomes are so uncertain that, in contrast to the case of
risk, no (suitably objective) quantifiable probabilities can be assigned to them.

Items that are so uncertain are taken to include nuclear war and core meltdown
of a reactor, possible outcomes of nuclear development :

widespread radio­

active pollution is, by contrast, not uncertain.

The correct rule for decision under uncertainty is, in the case of energy

choice, maximin, to maximize the minimum payoff, so it is sometimes contended.
In fact, once again, it is unnecessary for present purposes to decide which

energy option is selected, but only whether the nuclear option is rejected.
Since competing selection rules tend to deliver the same

rejections for

options early rejected as the nuclear options, a convergence in the rejection of
the nuclear option can be effected.

All rational roads lead, not to Rome,

but to rejection of the nuclear option.

A further convergence can be effected

also, because the best possible (economic) outcomes of such leading options as
coal and a hydroelectric mix are very roughly of the same order as the nuclear
option (so Elster contends, and his argument can be elaborated). Under these

conditions complex decision rules

(such as the Arrow-Horwicz rule) which take

---- ----------outcomes
------------ ------4^-^
account of both best possible and ^ost- possible

reduce to the maximin


each option

Whichever energy option is selected under the

maximum rule, the nuclear option is certainly rejected since there are options
where worst outcomes are

substantially better

than that of the nuclear

option (just, consider the scenario if the nuclear nightmare, not the nuclear

dream, is realised).

Further application of the rejection rule will reject

the fossil fuel (predominantly coal) option, on the basis of estimated effects

on the earth’s climate from burning massive quantities of such fuels.


Although the rejection rule coupled with

position several rivals to maximin



enjoys a privileged

for decision under uncertainty have been

of which has associated rejection rules.

rules, such as the risk- added

which ’assesses


Some of these

reasoning criticised by Goodin (pp.507-8),

the riskiness of a policy in terms of the increment of

risk it adds to those pre-existing in the status quo, rather than in terms of
the absolute value of the risk associated with the policy’ are decidedly

and rather than offering a


decision procedure appears to

afford protection of the (nuclear) status quo.

What will be argued, or rather


what Goodin has in effect argued for us, is that wherever one of these rival

rules is applicable, and not dubious, it leads to rejection of the nuclear

For example, the keep-options-open or allow-for-reversibility

(not an entirely unquestionable rule


’of strictly limited applicability’)

excludes the nuclear option because ’nuclear plants and their by-products have

an air of irreversibility ... ’’One cannot

way one can abandon

simply abandon

a coal-fired plant"’


a nuclear reactor
The compare-the-

alternatives rule* in ordinary application, leads back to the cost-benefit

assessments, which,

as already observed, tell decisively against a nuclear

option when costing is done properly.

The maximise-sustainable-benefits rule,

which ’directs us to opt for the policy producing the highest level of net

benefits which can be sustained indefinitely’, ’decisively favours renewable

Other lesser rules Goodin discusses,

sources’, ruling out the nuclear option.

which have not really been applied in the nuclear debate, and which lead yet
further from the Old Paradigm framework,

harm-avoidance and protecting-the-

vulnerable. also yield/ the same nuclear-excluding results.


in particular, points ’decisively in favour of "alternative" and "renewable"
energy sources ... combined with strenuous efforts at energy conservation’

The upshot is evident: whatever reasonable decision rule is adopted


the result is the same, a


nuclear choice is rejected, even by Old Paradigm

Nor would reversion to an expected utility analysis alter this

conclusion; for such analyses are but glorified cost-benefit analyses, with

probabilities duly multiplied in, and the


is as before from

cost-benefit considerations, against a nuclear choice.
The Old Paradigm does not, it thus appears, sustain the nuclear

juggernaut: nor does its Modification.

The real reasons for the continuing

development program and the heavy commitment to the program have to be sought
elsewhere, outside the Old Paradigm, at least as preached.

It is, in any case,

sufficiently evident that contemporary economic behaviour does not accord with

Old Paradigm percepts, practice does not accord with neo-classical economic

theory nor, to consider the main modification, with social



There are, firstly, reasons of previous commitment, when nuclear

power, cleverly promoted at least, looked a rather cheaper and safer deal,
and certainly profitable one:

corporations so committed are understandably

keen to realise returns on capital already invested.

There are also typical

self-interest reasons for commitment to the program, that advantages accrue to
some, like those whose field happens to be nuclear engineering, that profits

accrue to some, like giant corporations, that are influential in political

affairs, and as a spin-off profits accrue to others, and so on.

There are.

just as important, ideological reasons, such as a belief in the control of
both political and physical power by technocratic-entreprenial elite, a belief

in social control from above, control which nuclear power offers far more than

alternatives, some of which (vaguely) threaten to alter the power base, a faith
in the unlimitedness of technological enterprise, and nuclear in particular,
so that any real problems that arise will be solved as development proceeds.
Such beliefs are especially conspicuous in the British scene, among the

governing and technocratic classes.

Within contemporary corporate capitalism,

these sorts of reasons for nuclear development are intimately linked, because
those whose types of enterprise benefit substantially from nuclear development
are commonly those who hold the requisite beliefs.

along with its state

It is then, contemporary corporate
enterprise image, that fuels the nuclear juggernaut.

To be sure, corporate

capitalism, which is the political economy largely thrust upon us in western
nations, is not necessary for a nuclear future; a totalitarian state of the

type such capitalism often supports in the third world will suffice.


unlike a hypothetical state that does conform to precepts of the Old Paradigm,
it is sufficient for a nuclear future - evidently, since we are well embarked
on such a future.
The historical route by which the world reached its present advanced

threshold to a nuclear future confirms this diagnosis.
split into two main cases, the national

This diagnosis can be

development of nuclear power in the

US? and the international spread of nuclear technology for which the US has been

largely responsible.

Eastern bloc is

which had in 1977 only
nuclear plants.

By comparison with the West, nuclear power production in

and is largely confined to the Soviet Union



one -sixth

the wattage output of


Nuclear development in USSR has been, of course, a state

controlled and subsidized venture, in which there has been virtually

no public

participation or discussion; but Russian technology has not been exported else­

where to any great extent.

American technology has.


The 60s were, because of the growth in electricity demand, a period of

great expansion of the electrical utilities in the US.

These companies were

encouraged to build nuclear plants, rather than coal or oil burning plants,
for several state controlled or influenced reasons:-

Firstly, owing to

governmental regulation procedures the utilities could (it then seemed) earn

a higher rate of profit on a nuclear plant than a fossil fuel one.


the US government arranged to meet crucial costs and risks of nuclear operation,
and in this way, and more directly through its federal agencies, actively

encouraged a nuclear choice and nuclear development.

In particular, state

limitation of liability and shouldering of part of insurance for nuclear
accidents and state arrangements to handle nuclear wastes were what made

profitable private utility operation appear feasible and resulting in nuclear


In the 70s, though the state subsidization

continued, the private

’high costs of construction combined with low capacity
factors and poor reliability have wiped out the iyst advantage that nuclear power

picture changed :

had enjoyed in the US.
Much as the domestic nuclear market in the US is controlled by a few
corporations, so the world market is dominated by a few countries, predominantly

and first of all the US, which through its two leading nuclear companies,

Westinghouse and General Electric, has been the major exporter of nuclear
technology. '
These companies were enabled to gain entry into European and
subsequently world markets by US foreign policies, basically the "Atoms for

Peace" program supplemented by bilateral agreements providing for US technology,
research, enriched uranium and financial capital.

’The US offered a Estate

subsidized] nuclear package that Europe could not refuse and with which the

British could not compete*.

In the 70s the picture of US domination of Common

Market nuclear technology had given way to subtler influence: American companies
dudlJug with relevant governments) substantial interests in European

and Japanese nuclear companies and held licences on the technology which remained
largely American.

Meanwhile in the 60s and 70s the US entered into bilateral

agreements for civilian use of atomic energy with many other countries, for

example, Argentina, Brasil, Columbia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel,

Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Portugal, South Africa,

Taiwan, Turkey, Venezuela, South Vietnam.

The US proceeded,


in this way, to ship

nuclear technology and nuclear materials in great quantities round the world.

It also proceeded to spread nuclear technology through the International Atomic
Energy Agency, originally designed to control and safeguard nuclear operations,
but most of whose *budget and activities ... have gone to promote nuclear


A main reason for the promotion and sales pressure on Third World
countries has been the failure of US domestic market and industrial world

markets for reactors.

Less developed countries

offer a new frontier where reactors can be built with
easy public financing, where health and safety regulations
are loose and enforcement rare, where public opposition
is not permitted and where weak and corrupt regimes offer
easy sales.
... the US has considerable leverage
with many of these countries. We know from painful
experience that many of the worst dictatorships in the planet
would not be able to stand without overt and covert US support.
Many of those same regimes
are now^ pursuing
nuclear path, for all the worst reasons.

It is evident from this sketch of the ways and means of reactor
proliferation that not only have practices departed far from the framework

of the Old Paradigm and five social Modification, but that the practices (or

corporate capitalism and associated third world imperialism) involve much

that is ethically unacceptable, whether

for principles such as

by older, modified, or alternative


and self-determination are grossly violated.


The future energy

option that is most often contrasted with nuclear power, namely coal power,

while no doubt preferable to nuclear power, is hardly acceptable.

For it

carries with it the likelihood of serious (air) pollution and associated
phenomena such as acid rain and atmospheric heating, not to mention the

despoliation caused by extensive strip mining, all of which result from its use
in meeting very high projected consumption figures.

Such an option would also

fail, it seems, to meet the necessary transfer condition, because it would

impose widespread costs on nonbeneficiaries for some concentrated benefits to
some profit takers and to some users who do not pay the full costs of production

and replacement.
To these conventional main options a third is often added which emphasizes

softer and more benign technologies, such as those of solar energy and, in

Northern Europe, hydroelectricity.

The deeper choice, which even softer paths

tend to neglect, is not technological but social, and involves both
conservation measures and the restructuring of production away from energy

intensive uses: at a more basic level there is a choice between consumeristic

and nonconsumeristic futures.

These more fundamental choices between social

alternatives, conventional technologically-oriented discussion of energy options
tends to be obscure.

It is not just a matter of deciding in which way to meet


given and unexamined goals (as the Old Paradigm would imply), but also a matter
of examining the goals.

That is, we are not merely faced with the question of

comparing different technologies or substitute ways of meeting some fixed or given

demand or level of consumption, and of trying to see whether we can meet this
with soft rather than hard technologies; we are also faced, and primarily, with the
matter of examining those alleged needs and the cost of a society that creates


It is not just a question of devising less damaging ways to meet these

alleged needs conceived of as inevitable and unchangeable.

(Hence there are

solar ways of producing unnecessary trivia no one really wants, as opposed to
nuclear ways.)

Naturally this is not to deny that these softer options are

superior because of the ethically unacceptable features of the harder options.
But it is doubtful that any technology, however benign in principle, will

be likely to leave a tolerable world for the future if it is expected to meet
unbounded and uncontrolled energy consumption and demands.

Even the more benign

technologies such as solar technology could be used in a way which creates costs

for future people and are likely to result in a deteriorated world being handed

on to them.

Consider, for example, the effect on the world’s forests, which are

commonly counted as a solar resource, of use for production of methanol or of

electricity by woodchipping (as already planned by forest authorities and

contemplated by many other energy organisations).

While few would object to the

use of genuine waste material for energy production, the unrestricted exploitation

of forests - whether it goes under the name of ’’solar energy'

or not - to meet

ever increasing energy demands could well be the final indignity for the world s
already hard-pressed natural forests.
The effects of such additional demands on the maintenance of the

forests are often dismissed, even by soft technologicalists, by the simple
expedient of waving around the label 'renewable resources'.

Many forests are

in principle renewable, it is a true, given a certain (low) rate and kind of
exploitation, but in fact there are now very few forestry operations anywhere

in the world where the forests are treated as completely renewable in the sense
of the renewal of all their values.

In many regions too the rate of

exploitation which would enable renewal has already been exceeded, so that a total
decline is widely thought to be imminent if not already well advanced.

It certainly

has begun in many regions, and for many forest types (such as rainforest types)
which are now, and very rapidly, being lost for the future.

The adaition of a

major further and not readily limitable demand pressure, that for energy,
on top of present pressures is one which anyone with a realistic appreciation

of the conduct of contemporary forestry operations, who is also concerned with
long-term conservation of the forests and remaining natural communities, must

regard with alarm.

The result of massive deforestation for energy purposes,

resembling the deforestation of England at the beginning of the Industrial
Revolution, again for energy purposes, would be extensive and devastating

erosion in steeper lands and tropical areas, desertification in more arid

regions, possible climatic change, and massive impoverishment of natural


Some of us do not want to pass on - we are not entitled to pass

on - a deforested world to the future, any more than we want to pass on one

poisoned by nuclear products or polluted by coal products.

In short, a mere

switch to a more benign technology - important though this is - without any
more basic structural and social change is inadequate.
Nor is such a simple technological switch likely to be achieved.

It is

not as if political pressure could oblige the US government to stop its nuclear
program (and that of the countries it influences, much of the world), in the

way pressure appeared

to succeed in halting the Vietnam war.

While without

doubt it would be good if this could be accomplished, it is very unlikely
given the integration of political powerholders with those sponsoring



The deeper social options involve challenging and trying to change a social
structure which promotes consumerism, consumption far beyond genuine needs, and
an economic structure which encourages increasing use of highly energy-intensive

modes of production.

This means, for instance, trying to change a social

structure in which those who are lucky enough to make it into the work force,
are cogs in a production machine over which they have very little real control
and in which most people do unpleasant or boring work from which they derive

very little real satisfaction in order to obtain the reward of consumer goods
and services.

A society in which social rewards are obtained primarily from

products rather than processes, from consumption, rather than from satisfaction
in work and in social relations and other activities, is virtually bound to oe
one which generates a vast amount of unnecessary consumption.

(A production

system that produces goods not to meet genuine needs but for created and non-

genuine needs is virtually bound to overproduce.)

Consumption frequently

becomes a substitute for satisfaction in other areas.
The adjustments focussed upon are only parts of the larger set of

adjustments involved in socially implementing the New Paradigm, the

move away

from consumerism is for example part of the more general shift from materialism

and materialist values.

The social change option tends to be obscured in most discussions of
energy options and of how to meet energy needs, in part because it does
question underlying values of current social arrangements.

The conventional

discussion proceeds by taking alleged demand (often conflated with wants or
needs ^) as unchallengeable, and the issue to be one of which technology can


be most profitably employed to meet them.

This effectively presents a false

choice, and is the result of taking needs and demand as lacking a social
context so that the social structure which produces the needs is similarly

taken as unchallengeable and unchangeable.
It is commonly argued by representatives

The point is readily illustrated.

of such industries as transportation and petroleum, as for example by McGrowth

of the XS Consumption Co., that people want deep freezers, air conditioners,
power boats, ... It would be authoritarian to prevent them from satisfying
these wants.

Such an argument conveniently ignores the social framework in

which such needs and wants arise or are produced.

To point to the determination

of many such wants at the framework level is not however to accept a Marxist

approach according to which they are entirely determined at the framework level

(e.g. by industrial organisation) and there is no such thing as individual
choice or determination at all.

It is to see the social framework as a major

factor in determining certain kinds of choices, such as those for travel,

and to see apparently individual choices made in such matters as being channelled
and directed by a social framework determined largely in the interests of
corporate and private profit and advantage.
The social change option is a hard option - at least it will be difficult

to obtain politically - but it is the only way, so it has been argued, of avoiding

passing on serious costs to the future.

And there are other sorts of reasons than

such ethical ones for taking it: it is the main, indeed the only sort of option
open to those who take a deeper ecological perspective , a perspective integral
with the New Paradigm but not essential to radical departure from the dominant


The ethical transmission requirement defended accordingly requires,

hardly surprisingly, social and political adjustment.
The social and political changes that the deeper alternative requires will
be strongly resisted because they

and power structure.

mean changes in current social organisation

To the extent that the option represents some kind of

threat to parts of present political and economic arrangements it is not surprising

that official energy option discussion proceeds by misrepresenting and often
obscuring it.

But difficult though a change will be, especially one with such

far-reaching effects on the prevailing power structure, is to obtain, it is
imperative to try : we are all on the nuclear train.


All but the last line of the quote is drawn from Goodin, p. 417;

the last line is from the Fox Report, p. 6.
While it is unnecessary to know much about the nuclear fuel cycle

in order to consider ethical and social dimensions of nuclear power, it

helps to know a. little.
& Abbotts, Gyorgy.

The basics are presented in many texts, e.g. Nader

Of course in order to assess fully reports as to such

important background and stage-setting matters as the likelihood of a
core meltdown of a (lightwater) reactor, much more information is required.
For many assessment purposes however, some knowledge of economic fallacies
and decision theory is at least as important as knowledge of nuclear technology.


As to the first, see references cited in Goodin, p. 417, footnote 1.

As regards the second see Cotgrove and Duff, and some of the references
given therein.

Cotgrove and Duff, p. 339.


The table is adapted from Cotgrove and Duff, p. 341;

compare also

Catton and Dunlap, especially p. 34.


See, e.g., Gyorgy, pp. 357-8.


For one illustration, see the conclusions of Mr Justice Parker at

the Windscale inquiry (The Windscale Inquiry Vol. 1., Her Majesty’s
Stationery Office, London, 1978), discussed in both Cotgrove and
Duff, p. 347 and in Goodin, p. 501 ff.


Much as with the argument of one theory or position against another.

One can argue both, from one’s own position against the other, and in the

other’s own terms against the other.


As well as screening the debate from the public such manoeuvres

favour the (pro-)nuclear establishment, since they (those of the
alliance of military, large industry, and government) control much of the

information and (subject to minor qualifications) can release what, and only

what, suits them.

This is a conclusion of several governmental inquiries and is

conceded by some leading proponents of nuclear development; for requisite
details up to 1977 see Routley (a).

The same conclusion has been reached in

some, but not all, more recent official reports, see, e.g.,



For some details see Gyorgy, p. 60 ff.


See the papers, and simulations, discussed in Goodin, p. 428.


Naturally the effect on humans is not the only factor that has to be

taken into account in arriving at moral assessments.

Nuclear radiation, unlike

most ethical theories, does not confine its scope to human life and welfare.

But since the harm nuclear development may afflict on non-human life, for
example, can hardly improve its case, it suffices if the case against it can

be made out solely in terms of its effects on human life in the conventional
(Old Paradigm) way.

On the pollution and waste disposal record of the nuclear industry,

see Nader and Abbotts, Lovins and Price, and Gyorgy.

On the more general

problem of effective pollution controls, see also, Routley (a), footnote 7.


Back of thus Humanity Unlimited assumption is the idea of Man

replacing God.

First God had unlimited power, e.g. over nature, then when

during the Enlightenment Man replaced God, Man was to have unlimited

Science and technology were the tools which were to put Man into the

position of unlimitedness.

More recently nuclear power is seen as providing

man at least with unlimited physical power, power obtained through technology,

[ability to manage technology represents the past]


On such limitation theorems, which go back to Finsler and Godel on one

side and to Arrow on the other, see, e.g. Routley 80.

All these theorems mimic

paradoxes, semantical "paradoxes" on one side and voting "paradoxes

on the

Other different limitation results are presented in Routley 81.


follows that there are many problems that have no solution and much that is
necessarily unknowable.
Limitative results put a serious dent in the progress picture.


the Dominant Western Worldview,
the history of humanity is one of progress; for every problem

there is a solution, and thus progress need never cease (Catton

and Dunlap, p. 34).


See Lovins and Price.


The points also suggest a variant argument against a nuclear future,



A nuclear future narrows the range of opportunities

open to future generations.


’What justice requires ... is that the overall range

of opportunities open to successor generations should not be

narrowed’ (Barry, p.243).
Therefore, a nuclear future contravenes requirements of justice.



For examples, and for some details of the history of philosophers’

positions on obligations to the future, see Routley (a).


Passmore, p. 91.

Passmore’s position is ambivalent and, to

all appearances, inconsistent.

It is considered in detail in Routley (a),

as also is Rawls’ position.


For related criticisms of the economists’ arguments for discounting,

and for citation of the often eminent economists who sponsor them, see

Goodin, pp. 429-30.

The reasons (not elaborated here) are that the properties are different

e.g. a monetary reduction of value imposes a linear ordering on values to which
value rankings, being only partial orderings, do not conform.


Goodin however puts his case against those rules in a less than

satisfactory fashion.

What he claims is that we cannot list all the

possible outcomes in the way that such rules as expected utility maximization

presupposes, e.g. Goodin suggests that we cannot list all the things that can
go wrong with a nuclear power plant or with waste storage procedures.


outstanding alternatives can always be comprehended logically, at worst by

saying "all the rest” (e.g. ~p covers everything except p).

For example,

outcomes Goodin says cannot be listed, can be comprehended along such lines
as "plant breakdown through human error”.

Furthermore the different

more appropriate rules Goodin subsequently considers also require listing of
"possible" outcomes.

are really two points.

Goodin’s point can be alternatively stated however.


The first trouble is that such ragbag alternatives

cannot in general be assigned required quantitative probabilities, and it is

at that point that applications of the models breaks down.

The breakdown is

just what separates decision making under uncertainty from decision making

under risk.

Secondly, many influential applications of decision theory methods,

the Rasmussen Report is a good example, do, illegitimately, delete possible

alternatives from their modellings.


Discount, or bank, rates in the economists' sense are usually set to

follow the market, cf. P.A. Samuelson, EcOYiorri'icsi 7th Edition, McGraw-Hill,

New York, 1967, p.351.

A real possibility is one which there is evidence for believing could


A real possibility requires producible evidence for its



Thus the rates have little moral relevance.

The contrast is with mere logical possibility.



Such a principle is explicit both in classical utilitarianism (e.g.

Sidgwick p. 414), and in a range of contract and other theories from Kant and

Rousseau to Rawls (p.293).


the principle is argued for will depend

heavily, however, on the underlying theory; and we do not want to make our use

depend heavily on particular ethical theories.

The latter question is taken up in section VII; see especially, the

Poverty argument.

SF, p. 27.

Shrader-Frechette is herself somewhat critical of the

carte blanche adoption of these methods, suggesting that ’whoever affirms or

denies the desirability of ... [such] standards is, to some degree,
symbollically assenting to a number of American value patterns and cultural


(p. 28).
The example parallels the sorts of counterexamples often advanced to

utilitarianism, e.g. the admissible


of pleasure given to the large lynching party.

of an innocent person because
For the more general case

against utilitarianism, see ...


US Atomic Energy Commission, Comparative Risk-Cost-Benefit Study of

Alternative sources of Electrical Energy (WASH-1224), US Government Printing

Office, Washington, D.C., December 1974, p.4-7 and p. 1-16.

As SF points out, p.37-44., in some detail.

As she remarks,

... since standards need not be met, so long as the
NRC [Nuclear Regulatory commission] judges that the
licence shows ’a reasonable effort’ at meeting them,
current policy allows government regulators to trade
human health and welfare for the [apparent] good
intentions of the promotors of technology.
good intentions have never been known to be sufficient
for the morality of an act (p. 39).
The failure of state regulation, even where the standards are as mostly not very
demanding, and

the alliance of regulators with those they are supposed to be

regulating, are conspicuous features of modern environmental control, not just

of (nuclear) pollution control.


The figures are those from the original Brookhaven Report:

possibilities and consequences of major


accidents in large nuclear plants’,

USAEC Report WASH-740, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1957.
This report was requested in the first place because the Commission

bn Atomic Energy
wanted positive safety conclusions "to reassure the
private insurance companies" so that they would provide

coverage for the nuclear industry.

Since even the

conservative statistics of the report were alarming it

suppressed and its data were not made public until

almost 20 years later, after a suit was brought as a result of

the Freedom of Information Act (Shrader-Frechette, pp. 78-9).


Atomic Energy Commission, Reactor Safety Study: An Assessment of

Accident Risks in US Commercial Nuclear Power Plants, Government Printing Office
Washington, D.C., 1975.

This report, the only allegedly complete study,

concluded that fission reactors presented only a minimal health risk to the

Early in 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (the relevant

organisation that superseded the troubled Atomic Energy Commission) withdrew
its support for the report, with the result that there is now no comprehensive

analysis of nuclear power approved by the US Government.


Most present and planned reactors are of this type: see Gyorgy.



Even then relevant environment factors may have been neglected.


There are variations on (i) and (ii) which multiply costs against

numbers such as probabilities.

In this way risks, construed as probable

costs, can be taken into account in

the assessment.

(Alternatively, risks may

be assessed through such familiar methods as insurance.)

A principle varying (ii), and formulated as follows:

(ii’)a is ethically acceptable if (for some b) a includes no more risks than b
and b is socially accepted,

was the basic ethical principle in terms of which

the Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry recently decided that nuclear power development

in Saskatchewan is ethically acceptable:

see Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry Final

Report, Department of Environment, Government of Saskatchewan, 1978, p. 305 and

p. 288.

In this report, a is nuclear power and b is either activities clearly

accepted by society as alternative power sources.

In other applications b has

been taken as cigarette smoking, motoring, mining and even the Vietnam War (!)

The points made in the text do not exhaust the objections to principles

(i) - (ii’).

The principles are certainly ethically substantive, since an

ethical consequence cannot be deduced from nonethical premisses, but they have an

inadmissible conventional character.

For look at the origin of b: b may be

socially accepted though it is no longer socially acceptable, or though its
social acceptibility is no longer so clearcut and it would not have been socially


accepted if as much as is now known had been known when it was introduced.

is required in (ii’), for instance, for the argument to begin to look, convincing

is then ’ethically acceptable’ rather than ’socially accepted'.

But even with

the amendments the principles are invalid, for the reasons given in the text.

It is not disconcerting that these arguments do not work.

It would be

sad to see yet another area lost to the experts, namely ethics to actuaries.


A main part of the trouble with the models is that they are narrowly

utilitarian, and like utilitarianism they neglect distributional features,
involve naturalistic fallacies, etc.

Really they try to treat as an uncon­

strained optimisation what is a deontically constrained optimisation:

see R. and

V. Routley ’An expensive repair kit for utilitarianism’.

Apparent exceptions to the principle such as taxation (and redistribution

of income generally) vanish when wealth is construed (as it has to be if taxation
is to be properly justified) as at least partly a social asset unfairly

monopolised by a minority of the population.

Examples such as that of motoring

dangerously do not constitute counterexamples to the principle; for one is not
morally entitled to so motor.


SF, p.


Goodin, p. 433.


On all these points see R. Grossman and G. Daneker, Guide to Jobs and

15, where references are also cited.

Energy, Environmentalists for Full Employment, Washington DC, 1977, pp.1-7,
and also the details supplied in substantiating the interesting case of Commoner
On the absorption of available capital by the nuclear industry, see as

well E18], p. 23. On the employment issues, see too H.E. Daly in L9 J, p.


A more fundamental challenge to the poverty argument appears in I. Illich,

Energy and Equality, Calden and Boyars, London 1974, where it is argued that
the sort of development nuclear energy represents is exactly the opposite of

what the poor need.


For much more detail on the inappropriateness see E.F. Schumacher,

Small is Beautiful, Blond and Briggs, London, 1973.

As to the capital and

other requirements, see [2], p. 48, and also [7] and


For an illuminating look at the sort of development high-energy
technology will tend to promote in the so-called underdeveloped countries see

the paper of Waiko and other papers in The Melanesian Environment (edited

J.H. Winslow), Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1977.

A useful survey is given in A. Lovins, Energy Strategy: The Road Not

Taken, Friends of the Earth Australia, 1977 (reprinted from Foreign Affairs,
October 1976); see also [17], [6], [7], [14], p. 233 ff, and Schumacher, op. cit.

An argument like this is suggested in Passmore, Chapters 4 and 7,

with respect to the question of saving resources.

In Passmore this argument

for the overriding importance of passing on contemporary culture is underpinned
by what appears to be a future-directed ethical version of the Hidden Hand

argument of economics - that, by a coincidence which if correct would indeed be

fortunate, the best way to take care of the future (and perhaps even the only
way to do so, since do-good intervention is almost certain to go wrong) is to
take proper care of the present and immediate future.

The argument has all

the defects of the related Chain Argument discussed above and others.


See Nader and Abbotts, p. 66, p. 191, and also Commoner.


Very persuasive arguments to this effect have been advanced by civil

liberties groups and others in a number of countries: see especially M. Flood

and R. Grove-White,

Nuclear Prospects.

A comment on the individual, the State

and Nuclear Power, Friends of the Earth, Council for the Protection of Rural
England and National Council for Civil Liberties, London, 1976.

'US energy policy, for example, since the passage of the 1954 Atomic

Energy Act, has been that nuclear power is necessary to provide ”an economical

and reliable basis”

needed "to sustain economic growth” (SF, p.lll, and

references there cited).

There are now a great many criticisms of the second premiss in the


For our criticism, and a reformulation of the premiss in terms

of selective economic growth (which would exclude nuclear development), see
Routley (b), and also Berkley and Seckier.

To simple-mindedly contrast economic growth with no-growth, in the fashion
of some discussions of nuclear power, c.f. Elster, is to leave out
alternatives; the contraction


of course much simplifies the otherwise faulty

case for unalleged growth.

In UK and USSR nuclear development is explicitly in the public domain,

in such countries as France and West Germany the government has very substantial
interests in main nuclear

involved companies.

Even as regards nuclear plant

operation in the US,

it is difficult to obtain comprehensive data.
Estimates of cost very dramtically according to the
sample of plants chosen and the assumptions made
concerning the measurement of plant performance
(Gyorgy, p. 173).


See Kalmanoff, p.

See Comey.


Ref. to what it has to say about Price Anderson Act.


Full ref to SF onargument

from ignorance etc.


These e.g. Elster, p. 377.


A recent theme in much economic literature is that Bayesian decision

On decision theory see also,

theory and risk analysis can be universally applied.

The theme is upset as

soon as one steps outside of select Old Paradigm confines.

In any case, even

within these confines there is no consensus at all on, and few (and

widely diverging) figures for,the probability of a reactor core meltdown,
and no reliable estimates as to the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation.
Thus Goodin argues (in 78) that 'such uncertainties plague energy theories'
as to 'render expected utility calculations impossible’.


For details see Gyorgy, p. 398 ff., from which presentation of the

international story is adapted.


Gyorgy, p. 307, and p. 308.

points, see Chomsky

For elaboration of some of the important

and Hermann.

Whatever one thinks of the ethical principles underlying the Old

Paradigm or its Modification - and they do form a coherent set that many


respect - these are not the principles underlying contemporary

corporate capitalism and associated third-world imperialism.

Certainly practical transitional programs may involve temporary and

limited use of unacceptable long term commodities such as coal, but in

presenting such practical details one should not lose sight of the more basic
social and structural changes, and the problem is really one of making those.
Similarly practical transitional strategies should make use of such

measures as environmental (or replacement) pricing of energy i.e. so that the
price of some energy unit includes the full cost of replacing it by an
equivalent unit taking account of environmental cost of production.


(sometimes cooptive) strategies towards more satisfactory alternatives should

also, of course, be adopted, in particular the removal of institutional barriers

to energy conservation and alternative technology (e.g. local government

regulations blocking these), and the removal of state assistance to fuel and
power industries.


Symptomatic of the fact that it is not treated as renewable is that

forest economics do not generally allow for full renewability - if they did

the losses and deficits on forestry operations would be much more striking than

they already are often enough.
It is doubtful, furthermore, that energy cropping of forests can be a
fully renewable operation if net energy production is to be worthwhile; see, e.g.

the argument in L.R.B. Mann ‘Some difficulties with energy farming for portable
fuels’, and add in the costs of ecosystem maintenance.

For an outline and explanation of this phenomena see Gyorgy,
and also Woodmansee.


The requisite distinction is made in several places, e.g. Routley (b),

and (to take one example from the real Marxist literature), Baran and

The distinction between shallow and deep ecology was first emphasised

by Naess.

For its environmental importance see Routley (c)

further references are cited).



In order to contain references to a modest length, reference


primary sources has often been replaced by reference through secondary sources.
Generally the reader can easily trace the primary sources.

For those parts of

the text that overlap Routley (a), fuller references will be found by
consulting the latter article.

S. Cotgrove and A. Duff, ’Environmentalism, middle-class radicalism and
politics’, Sociological Review 28 (2) (1980), 333-51.

R.E. Goodin,

’No moral nukes’, Ethics 90 (1980), 417-49.

A. Gyorgy and Friends, No Nukes: everyone’s guide to nuclear power, South End
Press, Boston, Mass., 1979.
R. Nader and J. Abbotts, The Menace of Atomic Energy, Outback Press, Melbourne,

R. and V. Routley, 'Nuclear energy and obligations to the future', Inquiry

21 (1978), 133-79 (cited as Routley (a)).
Fox Report: Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry First Report, Australian
Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1977.

K.S. Schrader-Frechette, Nuclear Power and Public Policy, Reidel, Dordrecht,
1980 (referred to as SF).
W.R. Catton, Jr., and R.E. Dunlap, ’A new ecological paradigm for post-exuberant

sociology’, American Behavioral Scientist 24 (1980) 15-47.
United States Interagency Review group on Nuclear Waste Management, Report

to the President, Washington.

(Dept, of Energy) 1979.

(Ref. No. El. 28. TID-

(cited as US(a)).

A.B. Lovins and J.H. Price, Non-Nuclear Futures: The Case for an Ethical

Energy Strategy, Friends of the Earth International, San Francisco, 1975.
R. Routley, ’On the impossibility of an orthodox social theory and of an

orthodox solution to environmental problems’, Logique et Analyse,

23 (1980), 145-66.
R. Routley, ’Necessary limits for knowledge: unknowable truths’, in Essays in

honour of Paul Weingartner,

(ed. E. Morscher), Salzberg, 1980.

J. Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature, Duekworth, London, 19 74.

R. and V. Routley, The Fight for the Forests, Third Edition, RSSS, Australian

National University, 1975 (cited as Routley (b)).
J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.,

P.W. Berkley and D.W. Seckier, Economic Growth and Environmental Decay,
Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, New York, 1972.

J. Elster, ’Risk, uncertainty and nuclear power’, Social Science Information
18 (3)

(1979) 371-400.

J. Robinson, Economic Heresies, Basic Books, New York, 1971.

B. Barry,

'Circumstances of Justice and future generations’ in Obligations to

Future Generations (ed. R.T. Sikora and B. Barry), Temple University Press,
Philadelphia, 1978.
II. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, Macmillan, London, 1962 (reissue).

B. Commoner, The Poverty of Power, Knopf, New York, 1975.
N. Chomsky and E.S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights, 2 vols., Black
Rose Books, Montreal, 1979.

J. Woodmansee, The World of a Giant Corporation, North Country Press, Seattle,

Washington, 1975.
P.A. Bd\ran and P. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, Penguin, 1967.
A. Naess, 'The shallow and the deep, long range ecology movement.
A summary’, Inquiry 16 (1973) 95-100.



Richard Routley and Val Routley, “Box 106, Item 4: Draft of Nuclear power - ethical and social dimensions ; Draft of Nuclear power - ethical, social and political dimensions,” Antipodean Antinuclearism, accessed December 10, 2023,

Output Formats