The world’s growing nuclear waste stockpile must be addressed

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.

Japanese nuclear power plant  390 (photo credit: Issei Kato/Reuters)
Japanese nuclear power plant 390
(photo credit: Issei Kato/Reuters)
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.
Meanwhile, 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 decades.
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 come.
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.
There 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 country.
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 world.
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.
Iran’s power 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 disposal.
Indeed, the relevance of national borders in such projects with a lifespan of many thousands of years is highly questionable.
Proponents 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 multinational repository).
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 participating countries.
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.