Ethics Position – NAE Grand Challenges and ‘Provide Energy from Fusion’

Government laws stated to limit engineers’ actions in the U.S. about 150 years back Licensing, legal rules, regulations, standards, accidents like the recent nuclear plant collapse in Japan and lawsuits ensuing from injuries created by engineered products from the legal background of engineering activities. This legal structure ought to give the public sufficient protection. Where the structure is lacking, it can be supplemented to or altered. The reason for writing about the Grand Challenge, particularly the Creation of Energy from Fusion – is educating students and engineers about the significance of skilled ethics in engineering. Provided that engineers and their employers revere legal restrictions, engineers ought to be liberated and able to follow their employers’ instructions and their individual creative courses. One can fear that emphasis on engineers’ ethical principles may impede with continuing growth and enforcement of legal principles (Reynolds, 2003).

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Nuclear Fusion

A nuclear fusion during which the nuclei of light atoms are fused to create a heavier nucleus. In the procedure, huge quantities of energy are produced. A system like this produces the incredible vicious power of a thermonuclear device or hydrogen bomb, and provisions the power of the sun and new stars. In the sun, for instance, the fusion of the nuclei of hydrogen (H) atoms creates helium (He) atoms, producing in the process enough energy to maintain the surface temperature of the sun at c. 6000°C. Nuclear fusion has been seen by some scientists as the solution to all society’s energy problems. The hydrogen nuclei used in the fusion process are available in virtually unlimited amounts in sea water; the quantities of energy produced are enormous — a 600 MW power station would require a net daily fuel input of only 15 tonnes of ordinary water — and the environmental problems seem likely to be less than with energy produced by nuclear fission (Joy, 2000). One major and possibly insurmountable problem remains, however. Fusion requires very high temperatures — as much as 50,000,000°C — and pressures sustained for long periods, and as yet there is no material capable of withstanding the extreme conditions involved. Experimental reactors have been built using magnetic confinement as a form of non-material container and these have met with only limited success. Until such engineering problems can be solved, the commercial production of energy from fusion is not feasible. Cold fusion, which would remove the problems created by high temperatures, is theoretically possible, but claims that a cold fusion reaction has been created in the laboratory have not been confirmed scientifically (Brantley, 2009).

Nuclear power and global warming

The ethical thoughts and scenarios for a nuclear revitalization were considerably enhanced by the turn of the century by the rising concerns about climate change. As we have experienced, the climate change topic had initially been noted in the beginning of the 1990s, but by 2000 it was being considered very serious matter around the world. Nuclear reactors do offer a method of producing electricity exclusive of producing greenhouse gases for example carbon dioxide, and so worldwide there have been growing voices of curiosity in the nuclear alternative as one possible reply to global warming and climate change (Khushf, 2004).

Could a rebirth of nuclear power save the situation? Maybe the initial ethical point to consider is that it is not rigorously factual that nuclear power does not make any carbon dioxide. Not like the other energy technologies, the energy for nuclear plants has to be widely created (from ore) and this is an energy-laborious activity. Even though a little of the power might come from nuclear reactors, as of now most will be from fossil fuel plants, which will produce carbon dioxide.

Be that as it may, the total nuclear power process does create a great deal less carbon dioxide than fossil plants: one approximation estimates the total fuel cycle emissions for nuclear power plants at 8.6 tons per gigawatt hour, as compared with 1,058 tons for coal plants.

Keeping this ethical scenario in mind, it has been recommended that an initiative aspiring to augment the global nuclear input by nearly threefold, up to approximately 50 per cent of world electricity needs by 2020, would end result in a 30 per cent decrease in global carbon dioxide production from what they would otherwise have been (Martin & Schinzinger, 2008).

On the other hand, there are also some massive ethical flaws. The most understandable is that all nuclear plants create unsafe nuclear waste. As has previously been pointed to, some parts of the nuclear waste linger on dangerously for thousands of years (Nohrstedt, 2008). A number of countries are aiming to build up long-term repositories for high-level waste in isolated regions, and there are ‘vitrification’ methods for exchanging some waste into a glassified variety, however nobody can be 100 per cent certain that the waste can be effectively restricted over such extended periods of time. A small number of communities are eager to believe waste repositories close to them, and up till now to a greater extent waste is being produced. It is a genuine problem which many environmentalists sense can only actually be handled if no more waste is produced.

Fast breeder reactors (FBRs) can in theory extort 50-60 times additional energy from uranium fuel, so that the accessibility of fissile matter might, theoretically, be extended by as much as 50-60 times. By means of figures like this, and presuming present uranium reserves are depleted by 100 years, nuclear buffs from time to time talk in terms of uranium assets being prolonged by this means to ‘thousands’ of years, even though more conservative ethical commentators limit it to around 1,000 years (Khushf, 2004).

Surely, claims that uranium reserves might be stretched in fact by a factor of 50 or 60 could be seen to be rather hopeful, particularly since we are talking about as yet theoretical systems concerning networks of fast breeder reactors and reprocessing plants.

In this circumstance, it is vital to understand that it would also take time for a breeder system to make a major input in energy provisions. In spite of the name, the breeding process is not ‘fast’. In actual fact it can take years to breed an identical quantity of plutonium that you initiated with. The alleged ‘doubling time’ can be in surplus of twenty years, possibly as much as thirty years, particularly when the fuel cooling, reprocessing and refabrication procedures are considered (Joy, 2000). The expression ‘fast’ merely refers to the kind of nuclear fusion that occurs in breeder reactors: it entails fast, high-energy neutrons, instead of the sluggish, low-energy neutron fusion in usual reactors (Reynolds, 2003).

In a breeder, the fast neutrons change the non-radioactive portion of uranium (U-238) into plutonium, a procedure that in addition happens, but a great deal less powerfully, in usual reactors. To get access to this plutonium as was noted above, the mature ‘spent’ fuel must be reprocessed, so that a fast breeder-based system would need considerably distended reprocessing facilities. Not only would this increase numbers of shipments of spent fuel and plutonium would have to move between the various reactors and reprocessing plants, it would also significantly increase the amount of nuclear waste that was produced, presumably. That would unlock a range of safety and ethical tribulations, not least the danger that, in spite of all the safety measures that would surely be taken, plutonium possibly will be stolen for bomb-making activities (Doyle, 2009).

So, even though it has a few attractions, and might expand the life span of the uranium resource, there are a variety of troubles with the fast breeder alternative. In spite of enthusiasm from the nuclear supporters, a lot of who in the past maintained that the breeder was the only practical prospect for fission, actually the scenario for breeders are indistinct (Reynolds, 2003).

All over the world fast breeder projects have been finished. In the U.S.A., then President Carter was obviously worried about the possible security problems of plutonium proliferation, and a suspension was forced on the fast breeder program in 1977 (Khushf, 2004). In Germany the archetype fast breeder at Kalkar, the site of huge demonstrations by objectors relented in the late 1970s, was lastly deserted in 1991. The UK Government was worried at the expenses of the FBR scheme at Dounreay and at the long timescale prior to a commercially feasible technology may materialize. The FBR program was brought to a standstill in 1994 (Martin & Schinzinger, 2008). France deserted its FBR scheme in 1997, leaving only Japan with a foremost FBR scheme, even though this has had technical troubles, with a mishap at Japan’s Monju plant in 1995 concerning a sodium fire, which led to an ethical appraisal of Japan’s nuclear scheme. And then again in 2011.


Nuclear power and the developing world

The state of affairs with regards to nuclear fusion and ethics somewhere else might be different, for instance, in the developing world. The nuclear industry was very eager to be permitted to get hold of support for fresh projects overseas from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the discharge credit scheme first planned at the UN Climate Change conference held in Kyoto in Japan in 1997. The CDM is meant to award the developers ‘credits’ for supporting projects in developing countries which avoid greenhouse gas emissions (Joy, 2000). Provided that these credits can be bought and sold, effectively the price of the project is decreased. It has been anticipated that this may decrease the price of nuclear plants by as much as 20 or 30 per cent. On the other hand it was decided, after pressure from the EU, that nuclear projects should not be eligible for CDM credits, with opponents to nuclear inclusion arguing that it was not a clean, safe or sustainable option, nor a useful tool for economic development, at the reconvened Conference of Parties to the Kyoto agreement held in Bonn in 2001 (Ferguson, 2010).

Despite the fact that there are some scenarios for a nuclear revitalization in Western countries, this does not appear probable to be on a big level, and it is maybe for that reason not astonishing that, even with no CDM, the chief importance for Western nuclear companies at present seems to be export orders, with the developing world being an apparent objective (Nohrstedt, 2008).

Disclosure to Public

This highlights the problem of the role of nuclear power, in economic expansion. Some developing countries obviously perceive nuclear power as part of the industrialization development. ‘High’ technology progress like this may advantage a number of members of the technical and economic leaders in a few developing countries, although it can also be debated that importing capital-intensive nuclear power technology does not appear to be the greatest bet for those Third World countries that are under pressure with previously huge foreign debts, or those whose populations in mainly require cheap, uncomplicated, nearby accessible sources of power (Brantley, 2009). There are also doubts that part of the pull of ‘going nuclear’ is that it can give a means of increasing nuclear weapons. There are additional ways to getting the required nuclear resources, but civil nuclear programs give one possible source.

Even though most, but not all, countries in the world have signed nuclear non-proliferation agreements, nuclear development continuous to raise concerns about the ethics of illegal diversion of materials for creation of nuclear weapons like plutonium (Converse, 1964). These resources are cautiously restricted, but a black market has developed, mainly since the fall of the Soviet government. Adding up to the security crisis by constructing more reactors would appear to be foolish (Ferguson, 2010).

The ex-Soviet nuclear scheme, which gives around 12 per cent of the electricity used in the region, also presents other problems: the safety of some of the reactors worries many observers, but few of the new Central and Eastern European states can afford to clean them up – or to shut them down, since they need the power. Finances to help develop safety measures have been made accessible from the EU and other places, and moreover for the building of a number of latest reactors (Doyle, 2009). Considering that Russia has one of the biggest reserves of gas anywhere in the world, this may emerge a little extraordinary, but then Europe is relying on having right to use to these gas reserves when North Sea gas turns out to be scarce, and Russia desires the foreign exchange it can make from trading its gas to the West. In this circumstance it is possibly less astonishing that they and the West are keen to keep Russia’s nuclear plants going and support the construction of new ones.


Laws, rules and lawsuits come about after injuries and damage has happened. The legal answer predictably lags behind the familiarity of those on site especially those having witnessed nuclear disasters like the one in Japan. Conscientious engineers in the workplace can foresee problems and take actions to avoid or decrease harm. Additionally, they obtain information that is required for producing suitable legal rules. Certainly, certain issues of accountability for individual engineers concern duties with regard to the regulatory structure. The regulatory framework provides important support but not an alternate for the autonomous judgment and accountable conduct of engineers.

Works Cited

Martin, M.W. And Schinzinger, R. Ethics in Engineering, 2d Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2008.

Brantley, C.J. Survey of Ethics Code Provisions by Subject-Matter Area, American Association of Engineering Societies, Washington, D.C., 2009.

Doyle, Thomas E. The Moral Implications of the Subversion of the Nonproliferation Treaty Regime, Ethics and Global Politics 2, no. 2. 2009.

Ferguson, Charles D. The Long Road to Zero: Overcoming the Obstacles to a Nuclear-Free World, Foreign Affairs 89, no. 1. January/February 2010.

Khushf, G. The Ethics of Nanotechnology: Vision and Values for a New Generation of Science and Engineering, in National Academy of Engineering, Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004.

Joy, B. Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, Wired Magazine. April 2000.

Reynolds, G.H. Ethics Must Play Catch Up, Tech Central Station. April 30, 2003.

Nohrstedt, D. The Politics of Crisis Policymaking: Chernobyl and Swedish Nuclear Energy Policy. Policy Studies Journal 36 (2) 2008.

Converse, Philip. The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics. In Ideology and Discontent, ed. David Apter. New York: Free Press, 1964.