Across much of the world, nuclear power continues to spawn controversy. For
instance, concern over the Fukushima site continues, and a risky, unprecedented
operation has just begun to remove thousands of fuel rods.
despite the landmark international deal agreed on Sunday that saw parts of
Iran’s nuclear program frozen for six months, some critics wonder whether the
deal contains sufficient non-proliferation safeguards. Iran’s case is
particularly relevant because it establishes a precedent for the 20 new
countries that are planning to join the “nuclear club” in coming
Despite the intensification of debate over pros and cons of
nuclear energy, it is overwhelmingly likely that more plants will continue to be
built world-wide. This will mean increased nuclear waste for decades to
This waste, which has been accumulating for over 50 years already,
will remain highly radioactive for many thousands of years. Safe disposal is
thus a massive challenge for humanity that has yet to be addressed.
is currently international consensus that producing countries are responsible
for underground disposal of waste. However, there is also growing interest in
multinational repositories for waste originating from more than one
Multinational repositories have considerable potential economic
and security (i.e. non-proliferation) advantages, particularly for “small
nuclear club” members whose numbers continue to grow. Disproportionately, small
nuclear club countries are not in strong positions to implement self-sufficient
national repository programs for all types of waste arising in their countries,
and/or particularly benefit from multinational cooperation for the
implementation of a nuclear repository.
It is therefore unsurprising that
interest in multinational repositories is growing across much of the
For instance, in Asia and the Middle East local interest reflects,
in part, the fact that there are already several agreements in place for
international cooperation for nuclear waste management.
reactor is, for instance, currently “leasing” fuel from Russia. South Korea,
which is manufacturing several nuclear reactors in the UAE, has a similar
arrangement with that country. In both instances, the spent nuclear fuel (which
contains plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapon) is returned to the
originating country for non-proliferation purposes.
These examples also
underline the often under-appreciated transnational character of nuclear waste
Indeed, the relevance of national borders in such projects with
a lifespan of many thousands of years is highly questionable.
of multinational repositories often cite Ljubjana, the capital of Slovenia,
which has politically lain within the geographic borders of six different
countries in the past century alone. Thus Slovenia may make unilateral,
sovereign decisions today that, as national boundaries shift, or successor
states emerge, may impact other countries in the future.
To extend the
Ljubljana analogy, in the hypothetical case that Slovenia proves willing to
accept the waste of other countries from Europe or elsewhere, how should
neighboring Austria, Italy, Croatia and Hungary be involved in the process of
decision-making? If multinational repositories are to be equitable and
successful, it is clear agreement needs to be forged across multiple stakeholder
countries. This includes the nations in which the repository is located, the
states from which waste is exported, and countries with a wider stake in the
issue, too (e.g. those over which waste would be transported to reach the
From the perspective of ethics and
international justice, herein lies one potential problem. That is, the
possibility that consent of host nations may stem from imbalances in economic or
political power with other countries.
It is widely seen as essential to
establish national and local public acceptance in the process of deciding
location of multinational repositories. Yet, a sole focus on public acceptance
could blind decision-makers to power and/or wealth imbalances between
This would not be dissimilar to the 1970s and
1980s when there was substantial export of chemical waste from industrial to
non-industrial countries. The main reason for this happening was tightening of
environmental laws in developed countries, which created enormous costs for
disposal of waste. A cheaper option for firms was to export waste, mainly to
African states without such laws.
In order to avoid this injustice, the
Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes
and Their Disposal was introduced. This forbids producing countries exporting
hazardous chemical waste to other countries.
Nuclear waste is not
included in the Basel Convention.
However, neglecting the ethical issues
in locating multinational nuclear repositories could potentially lead to
adjustment of this convention, or to other agreements stopping development of
multinational nuclear repositories.
Indeed, some countries, including
Sweden and Brazil, have already introduced national bans for the import and
export of nuclear waste.
If this issue can be addressed effectively on an
international basis, there are key advantages to concentrating nuclear waste
from several countries in multinational repositories, rather than witnessing an
ever expanding proliferation of national sites.
Safe disposal of nuclear
waste is a massive challenge to humanity, and ethics must shape our solution
given the overwhelming stakes in play for all countries.
The author is
assistant professor of philosophy at Delft University of Technology where he
concentrates on issues of ethics and nuclear power.