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Ethics in energy

In the recently concluded conference on “The Future of Bioethics” held at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Ma Yin, a nuclear physics major doing her doctorate at Shinawatra University, presented some of the prospects for safe nuclear technology. In her research, a so-called Generation III+ nuclear power plant, capable of producing 300 megawatts of electricity, can be built 20 years from now.  The advantages include “nuclear waste radioactivity reduced from 200,000 years to 10,000 years,” “100 times more energy from the same amount of nuclear fuel consumed,” “recycling of existing nuclear waste for further use,” and “safety due to the fact that these plants are small and modular.”

According to Ma Yin, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan belongs to Generation II plants. Operationally, a nuclear plant requires a power station for its pumps to supply cooling water. The Fukushima plant had 10-meter seawalls that were overwhelmed by a tsunami in March 2011. The rush of water destroyed the source of power to the water pumps—thus, a nuclear meltdown. Radioactive water has since been leaking into the sea off northern Japan, prompting some Japanese not to consume what they consider radioactive fish, including some species of tuna.

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I argued that the irony of it is that while cheap electricity from nuclear plants is needed in developing countries, poor governance, lack of competent human resources in nuclear technology, and bad infrastructure impede the very development of nuclear energy in these countries. There are also potential security concerns and natural disasters that are beyond human control, thereby compromising whatever safety mechanisms are in place.

I mentioned these in view of the need for more thorough ethical reflection on the development and use of our energy resources. For instance, there are competing claims whenever a coal-fired plant is built in any locality. From a pragmatic end, we need energy to power industries, households, and commerce. Without power, there can be no economic development. But the issue is very contentious because progress must not mean the sacrifice of the environment.

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There are renewable energy sources like wind and hydropower. But wind energy is thrice as expensive as coal to produce. And the use of hydropower reminds me of China’s Three Gorges Dam project, which will result in the flooding of more than a million hectares of fertile land, the displacement of many communities, and the loss of flora and fauna, all in the name of progress.

We can, of course, begin with some ethical principles in order to respond to the challenge of sustainable energy resources in the future. For one, the notion of stewardship requires that we protect the next generations by caring for the environment. But most developing countries, in defending their use of coal, press the notion that they are entitled to using energy resources that will fuel their nation’s growth. They maintain that industrialized societies are to be blamed for climate change because decades of progress in the First World have contributed substantially to the problem.

The debate gives rise to notions of claims and entitlements, of moral obligations and climate justice. Poor societies lack the infrastructure to defend themselves against flooding, typhoons, and other natural calamities. Millions of people suffer due to the huge carbon imprint of the unsustainable western lifestyle. In California in the United States, for example, there are more motor vehicles than human beings. In the Philippines, data show that a little less than 4 percent of the population own cars.

What warrants the need for better policy decisions is the harm caused by politics, both global and local, on the issue of energy. For instance, pipelines supplying natural gas to Europe need to pass through Russian territory, thus holding the European Union hostage and giving President Vladimir Putin some leverage. The European Union has since banned fracking, but the United States welcomes this new technology as its savior for the next 100 years.

As often mentioned, the Philippines has the highest power rate in Asia. While our politicians are debating on what they must do with the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 (or Epira), it is the poor consumer who continues to bear the heavy load of expensive power. Moral reform in the power sector is therefore urgent because what is happening to us results from a whole gamut of problems. There is favoritism in the choice of people managing the power sector. It is not only their lack of technical or scientific competence that is the problem. Most of them also lack moral competence.

The debates often revolve around legal issues when the greatest issue is the need for moral reform.

It is an injustice to simply pass on to the consumer the expensive cost of power. If power rates are not brought down, big foreign companies will ultimately be discouraged from setting up their manufacturing plants here. Malls, condominium buildings and roads do not create new wealth. To create new wealth, we must be able to manufacture not only electronic components but also heavy equipment, cars, and computers.

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We have forever relied on the remittances of our No. 1 export—cheap labor. If we can bring down the cost of electricity, which means not giving in to vested interests and powerful lobbyists in the power sector, then we can generate manufacturing jobs here, thus saving our people from making cruel choices to leave loved ones and try their luck abroad. If the government is serious about its moral role in society, then it must begin to consider its moral obligation to ensure that the price of electricity is just and fair.

Christopher Ryan B. Maboloc ([email protected]) teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He holds a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University, Sweden.

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TAGS: Bioethics, Christopher Ryan B. Maboloc, Commentary, Electricity, Energy, Nuclear energy, Nuclear plant, opinion
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