- For about two decades now, the term “sustainable development” has characterised the discussions about taking better care of our natural environment, a fairer distribution of prosperity throughout the world, and more humane living conditions for all people. Sustainability encompasses not only ecological but also economical and social aspects, which must always be considered collectively and in their interactions.
- A comprehensive definition for sustainability was worked out for the first time by the Brundtland Commission, adopted by the Rio Conference 1992, and has since been refined, and interpreted [Brundtland 1987; Rio-Agenda 21, 1992]. The Brundtland report defines sustainable development as a development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
- Energy plays a crucial role in sustainable development. The way it is available influences practically all fields of social, economical, and political activities; the state of the environment and the climate are influenced by it, and often it determines whether nations will live in peace or conflict with each other. Accordingly, “the use of energy is only sustainable when the sufficient and permanent availability of suitable energy resources is assured, while at the same time, the detrimental effects of supplying, transporting, and using energy is limited.
Fossil fuels — the motor of today’s global economy
- Since the beginning of industrialisation, energy consumption has increased considerably more rapidly than the number of people on the planet.
- Whereas the world population has quadrupled since 1870, to 6 billion at present, the world-wide energy consumption, and therefore the consumption of fossil resources in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas, has increased by a factor of sixty to the present level of 423.
- The average person today consumes fifteen times more energy than a person 130 years ago, significantly more for those living in the industrialised countries.
- Temporary drops in the past, caused e.g. by the two world wars, the oil-price crises, or the serious decline of industrial production in the states of the former Soviet Union, interrupted this upwards trend in growth only for short periods of time.
- The current rapid increase in energy consumption started about 1950; the energy consumption world-wide doubled between 1970 and 2000. Moreover, no fundamental change of this growth trend is expected in the foreseeable future.
Guidelines for a sustainable energy supply
- Equality of access: Equal opportunities in accessing energy resources and energy services shall be assured for all.
- Protection of resources: The different energy resources shall be maintained for the generations to follow, or there shall be comparable options created to provide sufficient energy services for future generations.
- Compatibility with environment, climate and health: The adaptability and the ability for regeneration of natural systems (the “environment”) may not be exceeded by energy-related emissions and waste. Risks for human health – by e.g. an accumulation of problematical pollutants and harmful substances – shall be avoided.
- Social compatibility: It shall be assured when realising the energy supply systems that all people affected by the system are able to participate in the decision-making processes. The ability of economic players and communities to act and shape may not be restricted by the systems being set up, but rather shall be expanded wherever possible.
- Low risk and error tolerance: Unavoidable risks and hazards arising from the generation and use of energy shall be minimised and limited in their propagation in space and time. Human errors, improper handling, wilful damage, and incorrect use shall also be taken into consideration in the assessment.
- Comprehensive economic efficiency: Energy services shall – in relation to other costs in the economy and of consumption – be made available at acceptable costs. The criterion of “acceptability” refers, on the one hand, to specific costs arising in conjunction with the generation and use of the energy and, on the other hand, to the overall economic costs while taking the external ecological and social costs into consideration as well.
- Availability and security of supply: The energy required to satisfy the human needs must be available according to the demand and in sufficient quantities, in terms of both time and location. The energy supply must be adequately diversified so as to be able to react to crises and to have sufficient margins for the future and room to expand as required. Efficient and flexible supply systems harmonising efficiently with existing population structures shall be created and maintained.
- International co-operation: Developing the energy systems shall reduce or eliminate potential conflicts between states due to a shortage of resources and also promote the peaceful co-existence of states by a joint use of capabilities and potentials.
Nuclear power — the risks exceed the benefits
- As electricity generation from nuclear fission is almost completely CO2-free, nuclear power is often considered as being indispensable for achieving our CO2 reduction targets.
- This view does not however withstand any in-depth analysis: As climate protection requires a large reduction of CO2 over a long time period, the contribution of nuclear energy to the global energy supply would need to be increased by more than one order of magnitude and maintained over several centuries.
- Besides the increased risk stemming from each new nuclear power plant (many of them operated in countries with lower safety standards and with a lower level of political stability than in Europe), the limited availability of resources prevents nuclear energy from fulfilling these requirements.
- Even at today’s level of nuclear energy use, the availability of cheap uranium for light-water reactors is expected to last for only another 40 years.
- The long-term supply of a large amount of electricity requires the use of reprocessing and breeding technologies which are not only more costly, but also involve greater risks than those associated with today’s reactors.
Nuclear energy already conflicts with the basic requirements of a sustainable energy supply:
- Beyond-design accidents in nuclear reactors, leading to unacceptable human health risks, cannot be ruled out. The regions affected by such an accident would suffer from extreme consequential damages.
- All processes of the nuclear fuel chain, including fuel preparation, processing, and waste disposal generate radioactive material, some of which is emitted. The large remainder requires a safe and long-term separation from the ecosphere, the technical feasibility of which has not yet been demonstrated in spite of the considerable expenditures in research and development.
- Complete protection against the misuse of the plutonium by-product from nuclear fission seems to be impossible, in particular if plutonium must be handled within an international breeding economy. Any misuse of weapon-grade plutonium by individual states or supra-national groups is a continuous threat for humanity.
- Full protection of nuclear facilities against external forces and sabotage is impossible, or would lead to extremely high costs and a limitation of civil liberties.
- A limitation of the use of nuclear power to only the “highly developed” countries in order to reduce the risks described above would hinder a peaceful world-wide co-operation and is thus not a viable proposition for political reasons.