Should future generations be forced to deal with our nuclear legacy?

Onkalo nuclear waste site

Finland are building the world's first permanent nuclear waste repositor in Onkalo, around 300km northwest of Helsinki

In producing nuclear power we are taking the benefits today but leaving the burden of cleaning up waste and accident risks to future generations, argues a study on nuclear ethics

The first post-human structure, is what they call it. Onkalo, a vast underground storage facility 300 km northwest of Helsinki, will take Finland's most radioactive nuclear waste and quite literally lock it away forever.

Once it is full, rather than covering it in warning signs the engineers behind its construction plan to remove every surface trace of the underground facility. It will be left looking no different from its surroundings - a mostly tree-laden wilderness. A forgotten site.

Yet it will be designed to last indefinitely. It has to as the nuclear waste, produced as a byproduct of electricity generating power stations, remains radioactive and harmful to humans and other living organisms for 100,000 years. Even that figure is only theoretical as no one yet has any practical experience of dealing with radioactive waste in the long-term. For many scientists that may just be beyond the lifespan of human civilisation as we know it on earth. Our lasting message to future life is likely to be a landfill.

Beyond the significance of our legacy, there is also a question about whether this is safe. Who will protect all this radioactive waste for the next 100,000 years? The Finnish solution at Onkalo, translated into English as cavity, is to hide it all away.

'What will human societies be doing in hundreds of thousands of years and will they be stable enough to care for this generation's toxic nuclear legacy?' asks director Michael Madsen, who has made a documentary film, 'Into Eternity', about the construction of Onkalo. 'Nuclear energy represents the epitome of the universe but on the other hand it produces this timespan, incomprehensible to humans. The real significance of Onkalo is what it tells us about our time,' he says.

At least Finland has attempted to find an answer, with Onkalo likely to be the world's first permanent nuclear waste repository when it is opened in 2020. For Germany, Japan, the UK and US, the search goes on. President Obama scrapped funding for a similar site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In the UK, early proposals for a deep underground disposal site in West Cumbria have faced opposition over concerns about the contamination of water supplies.

A burden for future generations

As we delay and dispute how to manage our existing nuclear waste, we continue to produce more of it - an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 tonnes in total exists around the world - and create a bigger burden of safe disposal on future generations.

'Considering we have only had 10,000 years of written history, we must realise how long future generations will suffer from the onerous legacy left by present societies. Only a few decades of using nuclear energy leave hazardous nuclear waste for an unimaginable number of future generations,' says Wolfgang Gruendinger, from the German NGO Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations (FRFG).

The idea of intergenerational justice has received increasing attention in recent years, particularly in relation to campaigns on climate change where future generations will be adversely affected by our continued dependency on fossil fuels. However, with nuclear power the case is more difficult to argue.

Opponents argue it has serious disadvantages with accident risks (for example the leak of radioactive material from Fukushima power plant in Japan), security concerns in relation to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the problem of long-lived waste. But supporters say nuclear power can also produce large amounts of energy from small amounts of fuel, while emitting very low amounts of greenhouse gases - reducing countries’ reliance on fossil fuel for their energy provision. This is one of the reasons why Japan, with little oil and gas reserves, has up till now drawn heavily on nuclear power.

As well as the escalating waste liability that the taxpayer will ultimately have to take on, nuclear consultant Dr Paul Dorfman from the University of Warwick, argues it also unfairly locks future generations into nuclear energy. 'Given what we know about climate change it seems problematic to lock in to a very inflexible high-risk technology that has proved expensive, and may be out of the price range of future generations to resolve, unless we help to minimise impacts now,' he says.

While long-term underground storage facilities like Onkala and ones being proposed in the UK seem a sensible technological solution, they may not be morally justifiable, according to Dr Behnam Taebi, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In a recently published academic paper on the ethics of nuclear power, he argues the present generation has a moral duty not to jeopardise the safety and security of future generations or impose any harm upon them.

US government guidelines for disposing waste at Yucca Mountain, drawn before the plans were dropped, argue that although a waste site must provide 'reasonable protection and security' for the very far future it did not necessarily have to be to that level forever. 'We emphasise that we do not question whether there is an obligation to future generations but we believe there is no consensus regarding the nature of that obligation, for how long it applies, whether it changes over time, or how it can be discharged,' it states.

Dr Taebi disagrees and argues people living in the next 10,000 years deserve a level of protection equal to the current level, and the generations belonging to the period extending beyond 10,000 years could be exposed to a much higher radiation limit.  'Assuming that the present generation has predominately benefited from nuclear power, the default situation should be that this generation remains primarily responsible for dealing with it.

Even arguments that it can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate change may not be enough to justify nuclear power, concludes Dr Taebi.

'The choice should not be between injustice done to the present generation and injustice towards the future as a result of nuclear power deployment. Perhaps, it is rather the case that we should avoid nuclear power and choose instead other energy provision systems,' he says.

Useful links

Study: The Morally Desirable Option for Nuclear Power Production

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