CNS PHOTO | TOKYO ELECTRIC POWER CO. VIA REUTERS
Smoke seen coming from the area of the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sparks fear and concern about the safety of nuclear energy.
The ongoing nuclear plant disaster in Japan raises not only environmental and health issues, but ethical questions about energy use and the future of nuclear power, according to Catholic scholars and other ethicists.
Questions about the safety, cost-effectiveness and long-term prospects for nuclear power are familiar to Bob McKeon, associate director of the Office for Social Justice of the Edmonton Archdiocese.
Less than two years ago, the Alberta bishops wrote a pastoral letter urging "serious discussion and ethical reflection" about a nuclear power plant that Bruce Power proposed building beside the Peace River in northern Alberta.
The bishops asked if there was enough water available for the plant, if nuclear energy was the best way to decrease Alberta's greenhouse gas emissions and if the safety of future generations was being considered.
They also wanted to know if the plant should be built before Canada had a nuclear waste storage plan and if subsidizing nuclear energy was the best use of government funds.
They further called for honest consultation of people living near the proposed site.
The disaster in Japan shows that "the questions are still there," McKeon told Catholic News Service.
William French, director of the Center for Ethics at Loyola University in Chicago, said the accident could be a "huge wake-up call."
It could "give impetus to jump starting massive research" in other energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, French said.
As Japanese technicians struggled to control damage at four of the Fukushima Dai-ichi's six reactors, Switzerland said it was halting plans for new reactors, while other countries, including the United States, announced reviews of plants.
Still others, however, said they would forge ahead with nuclear energy plans. On March 18, Chile signed an agreement with the United States to promote nuclear energy in the South American country.
Accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl, in what is now Ukraine, in 1986 triggered "deep fear" about nuclear energy in many countries, French said.
In recent years, however, concern about climate change and calls to reduce the use of fossil fuels like oil and coal, which emit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, led some policy makers to take another look at nuclear energy.
"It's not a black-and-white issue," Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, Washington, told CNS. "Like most really tough ethical (issues), you've got lots of questions to consider, and there are lots of uncertainties."
While nuclear energy could be "part of the solution" to climate change because radioactive fuel does not release greenhouse gases, "if something goes wrong, thousands of people could be killed and land could be unusable for centuries," Reese said.
Critics, however, say that painting nuclear power as free of greenhouse gas emissions is misleading, because it considers only plant operation.
If the entire fuel cycle, from mining through processing, is considered, nuclear energy's carbon footprint increases significantly.
So does the cost. A single plant can cost more than $5 billion. Since the commercial nuclear energy industry rose from the ashes of the atom bomb in the 1950s, research and development and plant construction have received hefty government subsidies.
Nuclear energy companies receive tax breaks, loan guarantees, limits on liability and other subsidies that sometimes add up to more than the power the plants produce, said a 2011 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
If subsidies are not counted, electricity from natural gas is cheapest, followed by hydroelectricity, conventional coal technology, wind, geothermal, biomass, nuclear and solar energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Some experts say that if renewable energy sources received the same subsidies as nuclear power, they would quickly become more competitive.
French said it is time to take a hard look at energy use.
The global population quadrupled in the past century "and is consuming at a much, much higher level" than ever before, he said. "We have a rising global expectation of consumption that the planet cannot sustain."