Disposing of Nuclear Waste is a Challenge for Humanity | Behnam Taebi

hanford
The ethical issues of nuclear waste should give us pause over nuclear power Young Kwak/For The Washington Post

Last week, on May 9, a tunnel containing barrels of highly radioactive waste collapsed at the Nuclear Reservation in Hanford, Washington. Despite the reassuring reports that no workers were injured and no major evacuations were needed, the accident reminds us of an immense problem. This site, a legacy of the Cold War, hosts waste from several decades of military plutonium production during and after World War II. The facilities are old, which raises the question: was this an isolated accident or something that could happen again? A massive clean-up process has been going on since 1980s at Hanford and it is expected to continue until 2160, with the projected cost of approximately 100 billion dollars.

The problem with this waste is, however, much larger than these costs, and includes the continuing risk of exposure for workers and people living near the site, not only today but far into the future. Nuclear waste is found at hundreds of sites around the world, the product of a half century of nuclear energy production. The safe disposal of this waste is a major challenge for humanity. There are thorny ethical issues that should first be addressed.

The risks are difficult to calibrate, because there is no such thing as a safe level of radiation exposure, certainly not for the type of radiation emanating from plutonium and uranium as present in Hanford. In the same vein, radiation exposure is not a one-off occurrence; it is the accumulation of radiation that has an impact on human health. The ethical questions are particularly problematic because the health impacts of exposure might only manifest themselves in humans after a very long time. The waste’s longevity poses a problem to many generations to come. The nuclear disaster areas around Chernobyl or Fukushima-Daiichi have become virtually permanently uninhabitable. The same goes for legacy sites such as Hanford, and also Sellafield in the UK.

The legacy of nuclear waste is, however, larger than only military waste. There are currently no operational waste repositories for civilian nuclear waste. In Finland an underground repository is being built and Sweden has selected a site for to dispose of its waste, but they seem to be the exceptions. Other countries haven’t even started seriously considering underground disposal. Currently, a lot of civilian waste is simply kept in pools on reactor sites, awaiting final disposal underground. This poses tremendous safety and security risks.

Even with the immediate concerns around human exposure and national security, nuclear waste management is essentially a problem of intergenerational justice. Present generations have enjoyed the lion’s share of the benefits of nuclear energy production, while future generations will be left footing the bill. We have a moral obligation to alleviate this burden by doing our fair share of the work needed to deal with waste. Our actions today (i.e. when, where, and how we dispose of this waste) will have implications for both near and distant future.

There are currently thirty countries that produce nuclear energy and in China, India, and Russia, nuclear energy is expanding rapidly. Adding to the complexity of the problem, another 45 countries are in principle, interested in developing nuclear energy, of which eighteen countries are seriously moving in that direction. While the consensus is that each nation is responsible for its own waste, it is not feasible for every country with a nuclear reactor to have its own national long-term disposal site for its waste. The moral dimensions of the waste management problem must increasingly be considered at the international and multinational level, which again pose the question who should deal with whose waste and under what conditions. We cannot simply step back and hope global market mechanisms will solve the problem; at least, that is, if we want to address the issues in a just way that accounts for political and economic inequality.  

Military waste has particular global implications too when considering the Trump administration’s ambitions to expand the current nuclear weapons arsenal in the US. This plan echoes the Cold War sentiments of not falling behind. Predictably, other countries will counter this plan, most notably Russia and China, opening up the possibility of a new nuclear arms race, despite all the achievements of past US administrations, Republican and Democratic, to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons (mostly bilaterally with Russia). This is bad news for international stability and increases existential global threats. But it is also unlikely that a lot of attention will be devoted to cleaning up legacy sites such as Hanford while the Trump administration pursues other immensely costly and politically flashy nuclear weapons projects.

Alas, while problems like upgrading infrastructure at nuclear waste sites and building new, 21st century disposal repositories are acute and pressing, they don’t have the dramatic attraction of nuclear weapons and cold wars. Thinking about the ethical issues of nuclear waste should give us pause over how much nuclear we decide to use in the future.

Behnam Taebi is Associate Professor of Ethics of Technology at Delft University of Technology and Associate at Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University