Issue No.9 Summer
(July 2005)


ENS News

ENS President's Contribution

Tapping Unusual Quarters

ENS Events

ETRAP 2005

ENC 2005

PIME 2006

RRFM 2006

Topnux 2006

Member Societies & Corporate Members

News from Germany

News from Romania

News from Czech Republic

YGN Report

Forum 2005

Jan Runermark Award

European Institutions


FORATOM on Baltic sea Region

ENS World News

Japan: green light for Monju

NucNet News

Greenpeace Co-Founder


Karlsruhe Research Center invites applications

ENS Members

Links to ENS Member Societies

Links to ENS Corporate Members

Editorial staff

ETRAP 2005

ETRAP 2005
23-25 November 2005 in Brussels


RRFM 2006RRFM 2006

RRFM 2006
30 April - 3 May 2006 in Sofia, Bulgaria
























Listening to others

Tapping Unusual Quarters: a personal view by Andrew Teller, ENS society manager

Unsustainable sustainability

Quite frankly, if there are two words I cannot stand, they are the ubiquitous “sustainable” and “sustainability”. Every report and every newspaper or magazine article that purports to deal with the future of our planet is peppered with references to these two words. They have acquired such a capacity for triggering positive knee-jerk reactions from any audience that no issue, however loosely connected to the environment, can be discussed without invoking them. Even the nuclear industry has fallen prey to their fashionable appeal. They have become the ultimate paradigm of politically correct thinking.

The reason for the wrath which the “S-words” awake in me is twofold. Firstly, I object to the most commonly applied definition of sustainability. Secondly, I object to the wrong way that they are used in practice, regardless of the definition applied. Let me approach these two issues in the reverse order. Since the poor use that is often made of the S-words is not critically dependent upon their definition, I shall leave the more important issue of definition to the end.

There are two main ways in which the S-words are misused. The first one is using the word “sustainable” as if it is a synonym for lasting, which is not the same thing at all. I once saw the phrase “sustainable international relations” coined somewhere. Whatever next, will “sustainable friendship” soon become an accepted concept too?

The second common misuse of an S-word is the habit of confusing “sustainability” with the very slow depletion of resources. So, for instance, geothermal energy is often wrongly branded as being “sustainable.” This is simply not true. The truth is that geothermal energy is used on such a small scale that its supply is not actually affected. However, the same could be said for oil had its consumption level remained the same as that in 1850. While using geothermal energy sources wherever economically feasible is to be commended, calling the process “sustainable” does not exactly encourage clarity. Anyway, enough of these complaints - complaints that are motivated by the engineer’s instinctive need for accuracy. Let’s go back to the problem of definition.

The most commonly understood and applied definition of the S-words is based on the definition of the concept of sustainable development that was provided by the Brundtland Commission. That definition is as follows: “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This laudable attempt at reconciling the idea of development with the fair use of natural resources (at attempt at squaring the circle, perhaps?) unfortunately ends up looking like another classic example of fuzzy thinking. If we think beyond our children’s generation and that of our grand-children, how can we possibly assess, with any degree of accuracy, what more distant generations are likely to require to meet their needs? Even if we could, how could we predict with justifiable confidence that what we have put in place to enable them to solve what we have perceived as their likely future needs will actually correspond with reality? Will our prediction of their needs be consistent with the technology that they will have at their disposal? Clearly, the Brundtland definition rests on a static vision of an evolving world. It encourages one to think of an unlimited future in terms of the present. It will no doubt seem obvious to everyone that the validity of this definition of sustainable development diminishes, inevitably, the more distant the future we focus on. But this is not the end of the story. The Brundtland definition leads us naturally to consider the concepts of renewable and non-renewable energies/resources. Prof. A. Voss observes that “On the one hand the use of renewable energy, e.g. of solar energy, also always goes hand in hand with a claim on non-renewable resources, e.g. of non-energetic resources and materials which are also in scarce supply. And, on the other hand, it would mean that non-renewable resources may not be used at all – not even by future generations1.” Sustainable development, as defined above, does not provide us with useful guidelines for helping us to understand what renewable and non-renewable energies and resources are. We should stop paying lip service to a concept that does not withstand scrutiny.

Criticism is all well and good as long as it is constructive. A counter-proposal is clearly needed. Firstly, in most cases, we could probably dispense with the S-words altogether and thus avoid the perils of Euro-babble. Secondly, a better definition is needed if we want to emphasize our desire to manage the planet’s resources sensibly. But which definition should we choose? Let’s first recall the guiding principles that should help us in such circumstances:

  • We must commit ourselves to using natural resources reasonably, which in most cases means as cost-effectively as possible (life-cycle analyses provide us with the required decision-making tool for achieve this goal

  • We must acknowledge that our capacity for predicting the needs of future generations is severely limited; we would be deluding ourselves if we pretended to be able to guess the needs that will arise in, say, three centuries. The time scale for action must be limited if the needs that we identify are to stand the slightest chance of being accurate

  • We must rely on the ability of science and technology to provide answers to mankind’s needs. This might look like an act of faith to some, but this is exactly what has happened in the past and current trends don’t give us any reason to fear a sudden reversal

Interestingly enough, these three principles should be easily grasped by the public. The first principle is uncontroversial. The results of a recent public enquiry on radioactive waste that was commissioned by the French Industry Minister2 indicate that the public would largely agree with the other two.

The unsatisfactory concept of sustainability could, therefore, be replaced by a more modest but effective one. I support and recommend the wording used by the NEA in its latest report on waste management3 in which it applies the term “stepwise adaptation”. Similarly, sustainable goals would be replaced by “stepwise adaptive” goals. These terms would remind us that the decisions we take have a limited shelf- life and that they will have to be adapted to evolving needs and tools, both of which change in a way that we cannot anticipate. Environmental matters are simply too important to permit the continued use of fuzzy concepts that are applied to help us address them.

  1. A. Voss, LCA and External Costs in Comparative Assessment of Electricity Chains - Decision Support for Sustainable Electricity Provision? In Proceedings of an IEA/NEA workshop on Externalities and Energy Policy: The Life Cycle Analysis Approach (pp. 163-181) Paris, France, 15 – 16 November 2001 (can be downloaded from the NEA web site) [Note of the Editor: even the title of this excellent report could not do without a S-word!]

  2. P. d’Iribarne, Les Français et les déchets nucléaires, Rapport au Ministre Délégué à l’Industrie, April 2005 (in French).

  3. Stepwise Approach to Decision Making for Long-term Radioactive Waste Management, NEA no 4429, 2004 (can also be downloaded from the NEA web site)

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