Together with Maarten Boudry, I have recently published an academic paper in Philosophy and Technology investigating to what extent the use of nuclear energy to mitigate climate change is ethically permissible or even mandatory. We think that our analysis can be of interest to members of the Effective Altruism community because there does not seem to be a community-wide consensus about nuclear energy. My impression is that the community, overall, tilts in a pro-nuclear direction, exemplified in the Founders Pledge report on climate change, but there have been relatively sceptical posts and comments lately. We designed our analysis to be applicable to a variety of different normative ethical frameworks. Unlike existing treatments of nuclear energy in the energy ethics literature (e.g. here) we focus on economic aspects in particular. And unlike the sceptical posts linked above we conclude that economic considerations, in aggregate, favour large-scale investments in nuclear energy, since renewables-only strategies face the risk of cost escalations as low emission limits are imposed. As many other EA-affiliated voices before (e.g. comment 41 here), we highlight that, as far as safety and risks are concerned, considerations related to nuclear weapons proliferation far outweigh considerations related to nuclear waste and accidents in terms of importance.
An interesting follow-up question is whether well-targeted actions to support, expand, and shape civilian nuclear energy deployment have a high expected impact compared with actions in a variety of different cause areas. Nuclear energy sits at the intersection of three EA-focus areas – climate change mitigation, nuclear war risk, and ending poverty (indirectly, by combating energy poverty) – but it is not currently central to any. The reason seems to be that in “median scenarios” for the near-term development of these focus areas nuclear energy is only a sideshow. (For instance, solar and wind energy will grow much faster than nuclear energy in the coming decades, and developments in the global civilian nuclear energy industry are unlikely to be among the dominant factors shaping the most catastrophic near-term nuclear war risks.) However, I suspect that, to the extent that well-defined expected utilities can be ascribed at all to interventions that potentially concern all three of these focus areas, it might be the case that intelligent actions taken today to shape civilian nuclear energy deployment may be extremely high-impact, comparable with interventions in pandemic response or AI safety. Notably, this may be true for interventions that make it more likely that democratic countries rekindle their civilian nuclear industries in such a way that:
- Nuclear energy makes an increasing contribution to climate change mitigation, either by providing a large share of future global electricity or contributing crucially to the decarbonization of, as of now, hard-to-decarbonize economic sectors such as industrial heat or shipping.
- Nuclear energy increasingly contributes to alleviating energy poverty in developing countries, thereby helping to end global poverty, in line with the aims of the Energy For Growth Hub.
- Democratic countries, as the globally more proliferation-concerned actors, increase and harness their bargaining power with respect to nuclear technologies in general, thereby contributing to a strengthened non-proliferation regime for nuclear weapons, along the lines sketched by Rebecca David Gibbons.
Two organizations recommended by Founders Pledge that promote nuclear energy and aim for scenarios with the criteria just outlined are the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and Terra Praxis. Both of these mostly do research on innovation and deployment opportunities as well as targeted political advocacy.
Appendix: Introducing RePlanet
Another, complementary, path to enabling scenarios of the type just sketched is attempting to shift public opinion on nuclear energy. For nuclear energy to expand, it will probably have to enjoy more widespread public support than it does now. Nuclear energy influencers, notably Isabelle Boemeke, who is also mentioned in What We Owe The Future, have already had some success in this direction, but much more can certainly be done. Recently, the NGO (network) RePlanet was founded, with Mark Lynas (a recent guest of the 80000 Hours podcast) as a co-founder. (I was also somewhat involved in the founding process as the chair of one of the constituent national NGOs, and I plan to stay involved as a member of the advisory board.) RePlanet promotes nuclear energy but also other technologies that are controversial in environmentalist circles such as GMOs and precision fermentation. Most RePlaneteers see themselves as environmentalists with somewhat unconventional views rather than as anti-environmentalists. Perhaps problematically from the point of view of many Effective Altruists, RePlanet tries to build bridges with traditional environmentalism by advocating large-scale “rewilding”. It aims to make controversial technologies such as nuclear energy GMOs and precision fermentation more popular among environmentalists by highlighting their potential for enabling “land sparing” that can enable such rewilding.