Risky technologies and old battle lines

OECD Observer

OECD Forum, 14th May, 2001: Sustainable Development Roundtable: Benefits and Risks of New Technologies; moderator Martin Cauchon 

Energy and new technology dominated this very lively discussion on risk management for sustainable development.

Technology has brought humanity lots of advantages, but it “has put our global eco-systems at risk”, claimed Chris Flavin, president of the World Watch Institute, at Monday’s Sustainable Development Round Table on the risks and benefits of new technologies. Take greenhouse gases: they are caused by technologies for extraction and combustion. Rainforest destruction has been permitted by an array of technologies; and so too have organic chemicals constantly building up in our bloodstreams, contributing to cancer and genetically-based diseases. Building an environmentally sustainable economy demands developing a new relationship with technology. The struggle is to control technology while enjoying the many benefits. But we have only partly succeeded because technology races ahead. New technology carries risks and no company introduces a new technology without extensive consultation and close attention to the possibility that there may be problems that are not immediately apparent. Nuclear energy, which emerged prior to the time of such sophisticated processes, is a case in point. “Lessons have been learned, both in terms of money and risk, and despite a period of rapid expansion between the 1960s and 1980s, the global nuclear enterprise has essentially ground to a halt now.” Nowadays, transgenic farming, while still expanding, is doing so at a much slower rate as we continue to come to terms with the problems and regulatory aspects. According to Mr Lavin, successful technological introductions in the future will involve large scale public consultation; the fact that the innovation has taken place and there is profit potential will not be enough.

The trouble is that in periods of innovation, new vulnerabilities and indeed, surprises, can emerge, said Adolf Birkhofer, a renowned engineer and expert in reactor dynamics and technological risk management. New technologies are different because whereas old technologies are simply introduced and quickly accepted, several new technologies pose a risk of serious accident. They demand serious risk assessment for health and safety and regulatory regimes to prevent accidents from happening throughout a technology’s life cycle, as shown in the energy sector. And as new technology becomes more complex, so these safety regimes become more critical. Key words: robustness of safety regimes, precautionary principles, public acceptance and communications, participation of interested stakeholders in decisionmaking, inclusiveness of regimes so that no group is exposed.

Quite apart from being unsafe, nuclear energy is uneconomic to run: this was the plank of the argument put forward by Amory Lovins, Chief Executive Officer and Treasurer from the Rocky Mountains Institute. “Whether nuclear power can beat coal power doesn’t matter, because energy efficiency and renewables, which are also CO2-free, cost far less than either. This concept of opportunity cost appeared to be missing from energy policy.” According to Mr Lovins, no nuclear manufacturer made money except on repairs. So, rather than argue about nuclear safety, “we should not be wasting time on it at all.”

For Mr Lovins, any one of three energy sources - more efficient end-use, more efficient gas use, and windpower - can beat nuclear plants economically.

The Nuclear Energy Agency did not agree with Mr Lovins’s point of view. Luis Echavarri, General Director of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, argued that in the United States the capacity of nuclear plants had risen to 90% over the past ten years, and 20% of US electricity comes from nuclear, despite the fact that no new plants have been constructed in 20 years. The operating life of some plants was now being extended. Of course, the well known risks have not disappeared, notably regarding safety, waste disposal and proliferation, Mr Echavarri acknowledged. On safety, huge strides had been made and the technology was now safe. Waste disposal was a problem, but burial was being tried as a safe option. On proliferation, he recognised the usefulness of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Improving public perceptions and participation was vital. The energy debate, Mr Echavarri said, would be continued in more detail on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, new technologies carry other, more abstract risks. Rather than closing digital gaps and bringing societies together, Jean-Daniel Gardère, Director General of the French Centre for Foreign Trade, worried that the information society risked reinforcing established powers and dependency relationships. The new industrial revolution was built on tools that were hard to put together efficiently and reliably: competitiveness was based on abstract issues of quality, innovation, image, ethics. The emphasis was on relationships between people and machines, between machines themselves, and between people. Mastering this complexity would give specialists an advantage.

Björn Stigson , President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, decried the lack of public understanding about technology and its beneficial uses. Balancing risks and benefits of technology is difficult, in part because there is no accepted process for doing so. Smoking, for instance, carried a direct risk, whereas other, external, risks are more complicated. Moreover, as in the case of nuclear energy, the beneficiaries are often different from those who are exposed to the risk. Therefore, new technology is most often emotively seen as a problem creator, more than a problem resolver, he said, contrasting the Northern hemisphere’s ethical GMO debate with the growing demand for this technology in the South. How do we judge acceptable risk? How clean is clean enough and who will be the judge? Scientists and politicians are not the ones people necessarily trust. These doubts call for building processes for balance and trust.

There was some scepticism from the floor that the sustainability debate had moved on in the last 10 years. Some pointed out that wind power for instance had its own environmental problems, but the biggest problem was that the sustainability debate was being held back by old battles, eg between market forces and state, while the institutions for sustainable development had not emerged at all.

©OECD Observer May 2001 

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