The words "science and technology" are commonly used together, but there is actually a fundamental difference between "science" on the one hand and the "technology" that utilizes it on the other. Science is concerned with uncovering the truth, while technology is essentially a neutral discipline shaped by social values and demands. We are all products of our societies, so when considering the issue of nuclear power technology, we first of all need to think about the purpose or objective of our lives.
As individuals, we seek to attain self-realization through the pursuit of our own myriad goals. As a part of the human race, however, our primary objective is the transmission of our heritage from one generation to the next, by which I mean not just the survival of our genes but also the passing down of our diverse cultures. Thanks to the blessings of nature, living creatures have continued to exist on Earth for 3.7 billion years, while the human race has also survived for hundreds of thousands of years. Modern civilization has been around for a mere 250 of these years. In this brief time, human society has chosen to use science-based technology as a tool for survival.
Major technological innovations of the 20th century include the automobile and airplane, satellites, the Internet and petrochemical technologies. They also include the nuclear technology used in medicine and electricity generation. These have all brought great benefits to society, but they are accompanied by risks too. Our lives are a balancing act between the two poles of benefit and risk. Science-based technology must contribute to sustaining human society and nations, while also enriching life. It is time to abandon the philosophy that puts the economy above all else.
I personally have no clear answer to the question of how we should incorporate nuclear power into our societies. However, fossil fuels and uranium will not last forever. We need to realize that if we continue using these resources as energy sources for a rapidly-expanding population, they will eventually run out.
When considering policies to tackle the energy issue, we need to focus on three things: the maintenance of a stable energy supply, the impact on the environment, and energy's role in economic activity. This is a difficult set of equations and it will require a comprehensive solution to ensure national survival in today's turbulent international society. The answer does not lie in fundamentalist extremism.
JAPAN'S UNIQUE EXPERIENCE
In 2009, the Hatoyama administration made an international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent of 1990 levels by the year 2020. At the G8 summit this April, the Kan administration pledged to raise the level of total energy generated by renewable sources to 20 percent by as early as possible in the 2020s.
If these declarations are based on sound scientific, technological and social (including industrial) policies, then they are indeed worthy of praise. Japan's energy self-sufficiency ratio is a mere 4 percent. Realizing these goals will require both unbending political resolve and public awareness. If these goals turn out to be nothing more than political rhetoric, Japan will lose credibility and its strength as a nation will decline.
There are high hopes for natural energy, but problems exist here too. Energy cannot be created from scratch, merely converted from one form to another. Natural energy comes in widely dispersed forms and it is no easy matter to gather these together to ensure a stable supply. Solar energy has a capacity utilization rate of only around 12 percent. Wind power also has its issues, such as landscape degradation, noise pollution and the question of how low-frequency waves may impact our health.
On the other hand, though nuclear power plants supply huge amounts of electricity, questions remain about their capacity to withstand natural disasters or man-made calamities. These issues include how to improve safety in the face of natural disasters, how to deal with radioactive waste and how to cut down on environmental pollution. To a certain extent, these issues can be tackled through the introduction of an international evaluation system, as well as through the harnessing of the power of technology. However, there are also human threats associated with nuclear energy, namely the risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. In an age of political and religious confrontation, with the gap between rich and poor growing ever wider, it is becoming increasingly difficult to eliminate the risks associated with our own crisis management capabilities. This is a serious problem that transcends national borders.
If we choose to do away with nuclear power plants because of these limitations, consistency demands that we also abandon nuclear weapons, a far greater potential threat. By the same token, countries that accept nuclear weapons will also probably continue using nuclear power plants. We need to consider the issue in a comprehensive way that includes the perspectives of geopolitics and civilization.
As the only country in the world to have suffered at the hands of nuclear technology developed for both military and peaceful purposes, Japan needs to lead the way to a world that can ensure the continued existence of all human beings in the face of this technology. For this reason, strong diplomatic skills are essential.
THE LIMITS OF TECHNOLOGY
What we must not forget is that Japan's nuclear power plants are part of a national energy policy that was vetted through a democratic process and has a certain level of social acceptance. We all receive the benefits of electricity, so we all must bear some responsibility for nuclear power. If we want to cut back on energy consumption, we need to make changes to the structure of our manufacturing industry, the basis of our national strength. There are hopes that the financial sector and industries with low energy consumption can fill the hole left by the hollowing out of our manufacturing industry, but there are limits to how much Japan can compete internationally in these fields. A decline in national power seems inevitable.
Science exists to serve society. However, science is not the servant of frequently-changing policies. It is all very well for politicians to hastily proclaim visions of a natural-energy society of the future, but over-the-top expectations mean nothing but trouble for scientists and technicians. Even if huge amounts of money are thrown at these policies, there is no guarantee of the goals being achieved within the allotted timeframe of 20 years or so.
For example, one of the holy grails of clean energy is the development of room-temperature superconductor technology capable of storing and delivering huge amounts of electric power. However, every amazing technological breakthrough depends first of all on new scientific principles derived through fundamental and laborious research. Even if the discovery of new materials hastens the day when a technology can be put to actual use, there is still a long way to go before this technology finds a practical role within society.
It is important to establish dialogue among scientists, politicians and the general public. Scientists need to present politicians with credible proposals, while politicians should have a good enough grounding in science to ensure that they do not distort these proposals in the process of setting government policy.
Dialogue with the general public is also important. Japan is home to 130 million people, of whom only 710,000 are scientists or technicians. Of these, only 180,000 work in universities or public research institutions. One of my regrets as a scientist is that I only discussed things with peers from within the extremely narrow confines of my specialty. It is my hope that scientists will engage in a constant and ongoing discussion with the general public.
The India leader Mahatma Gandhi said, "Earth has enough for everybody's need, but not for anybody's greed." We must be humble. More than anything else, we need to make significant changes to our ethical views, to our outlook on life and to our concept of civilization. If we do not make these changes, then there is only so much scientific progress can do to confront the issues of shrinking resources, booming populations and all the other myriad problems facing humanity.
(This article was compiled from an interview by Mizuho Kajiwara of The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE)
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Ryoji Noyori was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2001 and the Order of Cultural Merit in 2000. Recent writings include "Jijitsu wa shinjitsu no teki nari-watashi no rirekisho" (Facts are the enemy of truth - My curriculum vitae), published by Nikkei Publishing Inc..
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