Thomas Paine once wrote:
Every age and generation must be free to act for itself, in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.
This precept is of course routinely flouted by governments, generally in the interests of short-term gain. In particular, the current UK administration has a track record of allowing the national interest to be decided by private commercial interests in such a way as to place future generations at risk. Now, the results of the government appointed review of options for long term storage of high level nuclear waste look set to add bribery to connivance in the list of their misdemeanours.
David Miliband announced yesterday that deep burial of British nuclear waste will be the disposal method recommended by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM). But no waste will be Ã¢â‚¬ËœimposedÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ on any community. Instead:
Local councils are to be invited to volunteer to have a nuclear dump in their area. Those chosen will benefit from multi-million pound investment.
So the principle of consent is to be respected Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the consent, that is, of communities to join in collusion with the Government in the imposition of unasked-for and unfair burdens on future generations. The risks of long term disposal, unquantifiable as they are, are inevitably inequitably distributed amongst future generations. Even if there existed a legitimate way to make decisions in the present about the kind of timescales implied in the geological disposal of high-level waste, interfering in it by offering cash-strapped local councils the equivalent of a promise of early parole made to a prisoner who consents to being part of a medical experiment would instantly render it illegitimate.
Amongst all the ways in which hidden costs and what economists call externalities get imposed on those who are powerless to resist, finding ways to deposit these costs somewhere in the future is the most blatant. The greatest inequality of power between those who impose costs and those who have to bear them is the one that exists between those who are alive now, and those who will inhabit the world we have created. The basic iniquity of the GovernmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s latest round of support for nuclear power lies in its willingness to exploit this power gap rather than to face it with a sense of responsibility.