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Safe Technologies

Dismantling of nuclear power plant Greifswald, Germany
Bar chart: 32 500-442 500 lives at risk Unknown trend

Various global challenges make it advisable to develop and implement technologies that run with renewable and harmless substances and energy sources, and thereby keep damages and risks to health and development low. Safe technologies can deliver major contributions to overcome other global challenges.

Affected people and foundations of life: Safe technologies are, for example: renewable energies, recycling-based economy, bionics, as well as information and communication technology (if the toxic content of its product components are minimized). High risk technologies include: (1) nuclear power, large chemical facilities, and dams (technologies with potential for very extensive damage but with a very low probability of the damage occurring), (2) certain genetic engineering applications as well as the release and circulation of transgenic plants (technologies with potential for very extensive damage but unknown probability of damage occurence), and last but not least, (3) any climate damaging technology (WBGU [German Advisory Council on Global Change] 1998, 62).
  Although some genetic engineering applications provide medical or ecological benefits, there are applications with potential for very extensive damage. These include: the escape of organisms from the laboratory; gene transfer from transgenic plants to wildlife; allergenicity in food by including gene segments of allergenic organisms; the use of antibiotic resistance genes as selection markers; and uncontrolled dispersal of transgenic traits: e. g. (for example), viruses can incorporate parts of the hereditary material of virus-resistant plants, and can thus assume new traits. (WBGU 1998, 75-77.) Antibiotica resistant viruses could lead to a severe epidemic. Because of the risks, some genetic engineering applications should be substituted by safer methods (e. g., using non-resistant genes as selection markers), in case of food subjected to allergenicity tests in addition to toxicity tests, and they should enable consumer's choice by labelling products or listing transgenic substances contained (WBGU 1998, 77).
  Nanotechnologies need further risk assessment. They are able to deliver benefits, including health and environmental benefits. Particles at the nanoscale – between 100 and 0.1 nanometres wide (1/10 000 mm to 1/10 000 000 mm) – might differ fundamentally in their physical, chemical and biological properties from the same materials at a larger scale. These special features can be useful but they could also prove hazardous to human health and the environment. Thus, it has to be ensured that potential safety issues are assessed and addressed at the same time as the technology develops. (OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] 2008, 386.)

Deaths: no summarizing data. In total, the most severe accidents by three of the risk technologies named above have caused about 32 500 to 442 500 deaths:

  • The largest dam disaster was the failure of the Shimantan and Banqiao dams and a cascade of downstream dams and reservoirs as a result of a heavy typhoon in 1975. More than 26 000 people died in the floods, and estimates of the total death toll including subsequent epidemics and famine range up to 240 000 lives (People's Daily Online 2005; Asia Times Online 2003).
  • The most critical accident by a nuclear power facility happened in 1986 in Chernobyl (in Ukrainian: Chornobyl). Estimates of mortality differ in regional scopes and methods; they range from at most 4 000 to 93 000 death cases by cancer, and extend to about 200 000 deaths by all illnesses (Chernobyl Forum 2006, 16; WHO [World Health Organization] 2006, 108; IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] 2006; TORCH [The Other Report on Chernobyl] 2006, 6; Greenpeace 2006, 10, 26 and 48). Moreover, many deformities in newborns have been observed and a much higher genetic damage in the region and worldwide is assumed (IPPNW [International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, German Affiliate]/GSF [Gesellschaft für Strahlenschutz] 2006, 2 and 29).
  • The worst disaster by a chemical facility occurred in Bhopal involving the release of toxic gases from pesticide production that left more than 2 500 people dead and 150 000 injured in 1984 (WBGU 1998, 71).

Targets/goals: no international target.

Trend: ? no trend data available.

Measures: The issues of transferring environmentally sound technologies as well as of dealing with nuclear waste are addressed in the UN (United Nations) Agenda 21 (UN 1992, chap. [chapter] 34 and 22). For limiting the risks of genetically modified organisms, the UN Protocol on Biosafety was approved (CBD [Convention on Biological Diversity] 2000). Further measures in the field of technology include the support of research, development and market launch of safe technologies (example: Renewable Energies Law), research on risks, and regulation and reduction of technological risks, including the option to prohibit particularly risky technologies (WBGU 1998, 218, 220). Some industrialized countries have concluded to fade out nuclear power and/or to support market introduction of renewable energies.


Draft (2008)

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Photo credit: © BMU/EWN GmbH