BERLIN – Twenty-five years after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the ongoing catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan has – it must be hoped – made clear once and for all that the purported blessings of the nuclear age are mere illusions: nuclear power is neither clean nor safe nor cheap.
Indeed, the opposite is true. Nuclear power is saddled with three major unresolved risks: plant safety, nuclear waste, and, most menacing of all, the risk of military proliferation. Moreover, the alternatives to nuclear energy – and to fossil fuels – are well known and technically much more advanced and sustainable. Taking on nuclear risk is not a necessity; it is a deliberate political choice.
Fossil-fuel and nuclear energy belong to the technological utopias of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which were based on a belief in the innocence of the technologically feasible and on the fact that, at the time, only a minority of people worldwide, largely in the West, benefited from technological progress.
By contrast, the twenty-first century will be informed by the realization that the global ecosystem and its resources, which are indispensable for human survival, are finite, and that this implies an enduring responsibility to preserve what we have. Meeting this imperative entails both an enormous technological challenge and an opportunity to redefine the meaning of modernity.