"Because of the persistent threat of radioactive materials to the well-being of all sentient beings, the development and use of nuclear power plants is prohibited." -- The Buddha
You didn't know that nuclear power was forbidden by the Buddha? Of course there's no record of him saying anything like the above. His silence on this issue probably has something to do with the fact that he was born almost 2500 years ago in northeast India, into an Iron Age civilization.
Does this mean that Buddhism has nothing to contribute to the debate over nuclear energy? Another possibility is that Buddhist teachings have important implications that can help us understand our situation today.
Nuclear power has its own advantages and disadvantages, so the issue is how to evaluate them, and how they compare with other energy sources. What does this have to do with Buddhism? The Buddha said that all he had to teach is dukkha ("suffering") and how to end it. So one way to frame the evaluation is to ask what types of dukkha is nuclear power likely to reduce (carbon emissions into the atmosphere) and what other types of dukkha it is likely to promote (e.g., accidents such as Fukushima).
What causes dukkha? The four noble truths single out tanha "craving," but the Buddha also emphasizes the "three poisons": lobha (greed), dosa (aggression), and moha (delusion). When our actions are motivated by them, dukkha usually results.
This fits in well with the Buddha's revolutionary understanding of karma, which emphasizes the intentions behind what we do. Habitual expressions of greed, aggression and delusion often end up forming one's character and causing persistent problems.
What creates karma is not just motivation by itself, unacted upon, but intentional action. To make intelligent decisions we also need to evaluate carefully the likely results. But even here motivations are often a factor, because they influence how objectively we assess the possible consequences. Those who support off-shore drilling for oil usually see fewer ecological risks than environmentalists do, and the Fukushima disaster has reminded us that the same is true for nuclear power companies. That's why it's so important to become more aware of what actually motivates us.
What does this have to do with evaluating the benefits and pitfalls of nuclear power? It does not mean focusing on the personal motivations of the individual people involved in the industry. Instead, we are challenged to extend the basic Buddhist teachings about karma and dukkha into a new context.
Today we have not only more powerful technologies such as nuclear power (and nuclear weapons), but also much more powerful institutions that control them, which are socially structured in such a way that they take on a life of their own. And if institutions attain a life of their own, does it also mean that they have their own motivations? That brings us to the crucial question: Can we detect institutionalized greed, aggression, and delusion in the promotion of nuclear power?
In considering the possible role of greed, it's not enough to emphasize the role of the profit motive. We also need to consider the vast quantities of cheap and convenient energy that we enjoy. Why do we "need" so much? Because we take for granted an extraordinarily wasteful and (from that perspective) inefficient economic system, which emphasizes consumerism.
One of the main arguments for nuclear energy is that, although nuclear plants are prohibitively expensive and slow to build, they can most reliably supply the massive amounts of electricity we need. But a society less consumerist could flourish on much less energy. If greed is understood as "never enough," the issue of whether to rely on nuclear power is inevitably connected with greed both on the consumer side and on the producer side. Is an economic system that depends on constant growth -- that needs to expand if it's not to collapse -- really compatible with the finite ecosystems of the biosphere? And does consumerism really make us happy?
When we think of aggression (or "ill will"), it's usually some sort of overt violence that comes to mind, but social critics have coined the term "structural violence" to describe the way that violence doesn't always need to be explicit; the threat of violence can be as oppressive. Then do nuclear power plants embody structural aggression? A nuclear plant can be built without any intention to harm anyone, but what if it is nonetheless likely to cause serious harm to vast numbers of living beings in the future?
One part of the argument is that serious accidents, with horrific consequences, have always happened and will continue to happen, because the factors that cause such incidents cannot be avoided. After every Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima disaster, we always hear some excuse from the nuclear industry about why that was an exception, and that it can't happen again. Yet it will continue to happen again, because human error cannot be eliminated and the forces of nature cannot be completely controlled or even anticipated.
Nuclear power plants also produce huge amounts of radioactive waste, which threaten to poison all living beings for many thousands of years. Ten years after its removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour, but a fatal whole-body dose of radiation for humans is only about 500 rem (if received all at one time). There are already thousands of spent fuel assemblies, and no one really knows what to do with them because there is nowhere and no way to store them safely for such a long period of time. The United States has at least 108 sites that are contaminated and unusable, some of them involving many thousands of acres. The lifespan of some of these radioactive materials is very long: plutonium-239 has a half-life of about 24,000 years, meaning that half of it decays during that period but the other half remains as poisonous as ever. Human agriculture began only about 10,000 years ago; the likelihood that we will be able to secure such dangerous waste for much, much longer than that is not something to rely upon, to say the least.
In practice, the short-term "solution" has been to store the waste materials somewhere, put a fence around them, and forget about them. If the industry can get everyone else to forget about them too, the problem is solved -- for the time being, anyway. Let's leave it for our descendants to figure out what to do, and hope that will happen before the radioactive waste percolates into the water table.
Delusion takes many forms, but for Buddhism the fundamental delusion, at the root of our dukkha suffering, is ignorance of our true nature. The Buddhist teaching of anatta ("no-self") corresponds to the fact that our usual sense of self -- the sense that there is a "me" inside that is separate from the rest of the world outside -- is a psychological and social construct that normally feels uncomfortable because it can never secure itself. The Buddhist solution is to "forget oneself" and realize one's nonduality with the world: that I, like everyone else, am an impermanent manifestation of the whole, without any fixed reality that is separate from that whole.
Today, this delusion of separation is not only an individual problem but a collective one: the delusion that we humans are a unique species, obviously the most important of all, and therefore we can pursue our own benefit without any concern for the well-being of the rest of the biosphere. If we had a more nondual appreciation that we are an integral part of the planet -- that the Earth is not just our home but our mother, and that we never really cut the umbilical cord -- then it is inconceivable that we would choose nuclear (or fossil fuel) power over renewables, given all the long-term risks for such short-term gain.
The final irony is that the short-term gain for which we are willing to sacrifice so much (no, not our own sacrifice, of course -- we sacrifice the future!) may not be much of a gain at all. The purpose of any economic system is to help our societies flourish, yet it's becoming more doubtful consumerism is actually serving that function. Recent research by sociologists, psychologists and even economists suggests that, once a basic level of income has been achieved, what makes people happy is not more consumption but the quality of one's relationships with other people. Then why do we remain so committed to a dysfunctional economic process, which (among other problems) requires so much energy to keep producing so many unnecessary products?
If we can see through that collective delusion, the renewable alternatives to nuclear power become compelling. Rather than asking how we can generate the enormous amounts of energy that a consumerist economy needs, we need to restructure our societies according to the amount of renewable energy that's safely available.