Reflections on the Reversibility of Nuclear Energy Technologies

Research output: ThesisDissertation (TU Delft)

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The development of nuclear energy technologies in the second half of the 20th century came with great hopes of rebuilding nations recovering from the devasta-tion of the Second World War or recently released from colonial rule. In coun-tries like France, India, the USA, Canada, Russia, and the United Kingdom, nuclear energy became the symbol of development towards a modern and technologically advanced future. However, after more than six decades of experi-ence with nuclear energy production, and in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it is safe to say that nuclear energy production is not without its problems.
Some of these problems have their origins in the very materiality of the technolo-gies involved. For example, not only does the use of highly radioactive materials give rise to risks for the current generation (e.g., in the potential for disaster when reactors melt down) but high-level radioactive waste from nuclear energy production presents a serious intergenerational problem for which an acceptable final solution or its implementation remains elusive. Moreover, nuclear energy technologies have specific social and political consequences. For example, they have been said to be authoritarian technologies (Winner, 1980), requiring cen-tralized authority, secrecy, and technocratic decision-making.
While some of these problems could have been foreseen before nuclear energy technologies were introduced, others only arose after these technologies were already integrated into the social and infrastructural fabric of our lives. Addition-ally, new technologies (e.g., Generation III, III+ and IV reactors) are still being developed, bringing with them new and uncertain hazards and risks. Ignorance and uncertainty about the possible deleterious effects of introducing a new technology are inevitable, especially if the technology is complex, large time-scales are involved, or risks depend on social or political factors unforeseen in the design stage. However, this should not deter us from developing and intro-ducing new technologies. Rather, it should motivate us to organize these ‘exper-iments’ with new technologies in society in such a way that we can learn about their possible hazards and risks as effectively and responsibly as possible (van de Poel, 2011, 2015). In this way, it is possible to minimize risks and avoid unwant-ed moral, social or political developments. However, organizing such experi-ments responsibly also means that one could come to the conclusion that continuing an experiment is no longer responsible or desirable. Should we be prepared for such a scenario, and if so, how could we do that? One possible strategy to tackle this issue is that the technology and its introduction should be reversible. The aim of this thesis is to further explore this strategy by answering the following main research question (RQ) and accompanying subquestions (SQ):

RQ: What are the implications of reversibility for the responsible develop-ment and implementation of nuclear energy technologies?

SQ1: Under what conditions can nuclear energy technologies be considered reversible?
SQ2: Why should nuclear energy technologies be reversible?
SQ3: If so, how could the reversibility of nuclear energy technologies be achieved?

After the introductory chapter 1, the chapters that form the main body of this dissertation each provide a distinct contribution to answering the three subques-tions and, by extension, the main research question. Guided by three historical case studies of nuclear energy technology development (i.e., India, France and the USA), chapter 2 answers the first subquestion by formulating the two condi-tions under which it can be considered reversible, i.e., 1) the ability to stop the further development and deployment of a that technology in society, and 2) the ability to undo the undesirable outcomes (material, institutional or symbolic) of the development and deployment of the technology. Chapter 3 subsequently tackles the second subquestion by establishing the general desirability of technological reversibility by virtue of its relation to responsibility in Emmanuel Levinas’ ethical phenomenology. It argues that technology development is a legitimate response to responsibility but inevitably falls short of the responsibility that inspires it, incessantly calling for technological and political change in the process. Having thus argued that nuclear energy technologies should ideally be reversible, chap-ters 4 and 5 work towards specific strategies to achieve technological reversibil-ity. Chapter 4 first investigates the processes that make it difficult to stop the further development and implementation of a nuclear energy technology in society, thus provid-ing input on how to fulfill the first condition for the reversibility of nuclear energy technologies. To do so, it presents a phenomenological perspective on technology and its adoption based on the work of Alfred Schutz. It also explores different ways in which technology adoption drives the processes of path depend-ence towards technological lock-in. Chapter 5 examines the history of geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste in the USA. It identifies a number of concrete policy pitfalls that could lead to lock-in and that should consequently be avoided. It also presents a number of general design strategies that could facilitate the undoing of undesirable consequences of a technology, thus providing input on how to fulfill the second condition for the reversibility of nuclear energy technol-ogies.
Chapter 6 summarizes the central findings of the thesis and explains how these help to answer the research questions. On top of this, it reflects on a number of complications connected to reversibility considerations. Based on this, it is concluded that the question of irreversibility and reversibility is context- and technology-specific and a matter of degree. The chapter concludes with a reflec-tion on generalizations and limitations of the results. Finally, chapter 7 discusses the implications of this dissertation’s results for responsibly experimenting with nuclear energy technologies in society.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Delft University of Technology
  • van de Poel, I.R., Supervisor
  • Taebi, B., Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date11 Dec 2017
Print ISBNs978-90-386-4418-9
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Nuclear Energy
  • Levinas
  • Geological Disposal

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