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Nuclear Power And Justice Between Generations

Posted on:2011-04-21Degree:DoctorType:Dissertation
Country:NetherlandsCandidate:ProefschriftFull Text:PDF
GTID:1102581358670205Subject:Materials engineering
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This dissertation provides a moral analysis of different nuclear fuel cycles and is based on the notion that the burdens and benefits between generations should be justly distributed or, in other words, that there should be such a thing as intergenerational justice. In producing and consuming nuclear power we are creating a problem of justice for posterity, since we are depleting a nonrenewable resource (i.e. uranium) that will eventually not be available to future generations. Furthermore, the phenomenon of long-lived radiotoxic waste adds another intergenerational dimension to the problem. I argue that since we – the present generation – will enjoy the lion’s share of the benefits created by nuclear power, we have a moral obligation to also deal with its burdens. Two specific research questions have been explored in this dissertation. Firstly that of how we can approach the moral dilemmas connected with nuclear fuel cycles within the framework of intergenerational justice and secondly the matter of which fuel cycle is most desirable from a moral perspective? In Chapter 2, I review how the notion of intergenerational justice has influenced current discussions relating to nuclear energy and, in particular, to nuclear waste management. The International Atomic and Energy Agency has argued that we should avoid imposing “undue burdens” on future generations. Many nations believe that this principle is best complied with by disposing of waste in geological repositories rather than in long-term surface storage facilities; repositories are believed to best guarantee the safety of future generations. In planning repositories that are designed to isolate the waste for hundreds of thousands of years, we are confronted with substantial long-term uncertainties, all of which raise the question of what level of protection we should offer to remote future generations. In legislative documents relating to the Yucca Mountains repository in the state of Nevada in the United States, it has been argued that people living in the next 10,000 years deserve a level of protection equal to the current level but that generations of people living in the period extending beyond 10,000 years could be exposed to much higher radiation levels. I argue that such a distinction between different future generations lacks moral justification and so challenges the consensus to dispose of the waste underground. The framework of intergenerational justice is one that may not only be applied to waste management discussions but which could also be extended to include the whole fuel cycle from the mining of uranium ore to the final disposal stage. In Chapters 3 and 4, I explore how to approach the moral dilemmas connected with the nuclear fuel cycles discussed within this framework. I first investigate what is morally at stake and identify the following moral values: resource durability (supply certainty), radiological risk to the environment (environmental friendliness), radiological risk to the public (public health and safety), economic affordability (or economic durability) and the security concerns surrounding the using of the technology for destructive purposes (that is to say for proliferation). In Chapter 3 I compare the two existing nuclear fuel cycles which are known as open and closed cycles. These fuel cycles are similar until the first uranium irradiation phase in the reactor is reached. Precisely how the remaining spent fuel is dealt with determines the nature of the fuel cycle and therefore also the distribution of burdens and benefits between generations. With the open fuel cycle, spent fuel is viewed as waste and is supposed to be disposed of underground and isolated from the biosphere for 200,000 years. The open fuel cycle variant is mainly associated with short-term advantages, as it creates relatively less radiological risk and thus fewer public health and environmental concerns; larger radiological risks are thus projected into the future in the form of long-term waste disposal. On the other hand the closed fuel cycle could be linked to long-term resource durability because spent fuel is seen as a resource that can be reprocessed to extract deployable materials (uranium and plutonium), which then re-enter the fuel cycle. The closed fuel cycle is further capable of reducing the waste life-time by a factor 20 to 10,000 years. Reprocessing is, however, a very complex chemical process. It is very costly and only available in very few countries in the world. More importantly, during reprocessing plutonium is separated and that creates serious concerns in relation to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In short, the choice between the two existing fuel cycles can be reduced to a matter of justice between generations. In Chapter 4 a way of providing insight into the intergenerational distribution of burdens and benefits in alternative future fuel cycles is presented. Two prospective fuel cycles are explored from the point of view of the intergenerational distribution of burdens and benefits. The first alternative is an extended closed fuel cycle based on the separating (partitioning) of long-lived isotopes in spent fuel in order to eliminate them (have them transmuted) in fast reactors, all of which reduces the waste life-time to several hundred years; this is known as the Partitioning and Transmutation (P&T) fuel cycle. The same fast reactors could also be used in breeder configurations. In combination with multiple recycling, a breeder fuel cycle can produce (or breed) more fuel during operation than it consumes. The analysis provided in Chapter 4 shows that these fuel cycles will positively influence the interests of future generations. However, the additional safety, security and economic burdens that accompany the developing and industrializing of these fuel cycles will mainly be borne by the present generation. In Chapter 5 I reflect upon what is seen as the morally desirable fuel cycle. To that end I first specify how to contemplate justice to posterity. Brian Barry’s egalitarian principles of distributive justice are followed when it comes to not diminishing the opportunities of future generations (see Barry: 1978, 243). If we assume that welfare significantly relies on the availability of energy resources, depleting a non-replaceable resource will certainly affect future welfare. In addition, there is the presence of long-lived radiotoxic waste which, if not properly disposed of, can influence the safety and security of future generations. As nuclear power production predominantly meets present benefits and defers costs to future generations, I argue that the desirable cycle should primarily safeguard the opportunities open to future generations 1) by guaranteeing the availability of resources and 2) by not harming future generations; the latter could be seen as a fundamental condition if future generations are to enjoy equal opportunities. Two conditional duties have accordingly been formulated bearing in mind the fact that they might be overruled by more important duties like, for instance, those to the present generation. I argue that if we continue to deploy nuclear power, then Partitioning and Transmutation (P&T) is the fuel cycle that should be preferred from a moral perspective, since it substantially reduces the waste life-time and therefore also best safeguards the interests of future generations. P&T furthermore challenges the need for geological disposal thus placing surface storage in a new light since such storage facilities can be used to dispose of waste with a much shorter life-time (Chapter 2). What, now, is the relationship between these principles and duties and policies? I have presented the open or closed fuel cycle choice as a matter of justice between generations. However, this has not been the decisive argument so far put forward when choosing fuel cycles. The United States, for instance, does not favor the closed fuel cycle because of the proliferation risk while a potential proliferator might prefer the closed fuel cycle for exactly that reason. There are also countries with few natural resources, like Japan, that choose the closed fuel cycle in order to become less dependent upon imported resources. My conclusions might not appeal to everybody as decades of developing new reprocessing technologies and fast reactors will be required, all of which create serious safety, security and economic burdens for the present generation, before P&T can be implemented. Indeed, the aforementioned considerations have always been, and will probably always remain, crucial to policy-making. However, what we tend to forget is that the choices we make today have serious consequences for the interests of all the other people who come after us. Hence my reasons for endeavoring to redirect the nuclear energy production and nuclear waste management policy towards the interests of posterity without downplaying the importance of the additional burdens upon contemporaries. It is in light of these intergenerational justice considerations that we should choose our policies.
Keywords/Search Tags:Nuclear Power, Nuclear Fuel Cycles, Intergenerational Justice
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