Nuclear Bribery

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 ‘imposed’ 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 – 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 Government’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.

  1. Alex said:

    As opposed, presumably, to the alternative “wave magic wand and make the stuff go away” plan? Tell me more about this “not our fault” theory – I find it strangely fascinating, as Fafblog so wisely put it.

  2. Rochenko said:

    Not sure what you mean by said theory, Alex. After all, the ‘wave magic wand, make stuff go away’ approach is of course at least 50% of the attraction of the idea of deep burial.

    I get the feeling your post needs a sarcasmectomy to free your point.

  3. Alex said:

    Whatever the philosophisin’, the stuff exists and needs disposing of.

    Tom Paine 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.

    I don’t think this is at all as wise as you think. Any action has consequences. Taking Paine’s reading, building a house is an egregious incursion on the liberty of the future, as is having the outrageous presumption to think you can suggest ideas to people 200 years in the future by picking up your pen and writing Every age and generation..

    But whether he is right or wrong, we haven’t got any less nuclear waste. What, after all, does it mean to “face this power gap with a sense of responsibility?” I strongly suspect it means nothing, as any form of disposal appears to be ruled out a priori.

    Perhaps your alternative plan is to keep going around the circular argument until the stuff decays?

  4. Dunc said:

    I think the point that is being made here is: given that there’s really isn’t a good answer to the problem of the nuclear waste we have now, it probably isn’t a great idea to substantially increase the rate at which we produce said nuclear waste.

    The fact that a problem exists does not necessarily imply that there are any good solutions to it. Or indeed, any viable solutions at all.

  5. Rochenko said:

    First of all, as Dunc said: moratorium on creating any more nuclear waste. Then deal with the stuff we have. Deep burial is a bad solution, as it imposes entirely unforeseeable risks on future generations, mainly thanks to the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach. With a magic wand, we make the waste vanish from the present, only for it to return when (say) geological activity breaks a cask and pollutes the water table in the locality where it is buried (the nearest the Americans have got to finding a ‘geologically suitable’ location, Yucca Mountain, is prone to earthquakes). In essenc, it’s no different from flytipping: leave it for someone else to deal with.

    Although all acts have consequences, there is a big difference between acting in such a way as to maximise present benefits and future costs, and acting with due care in the face of your power to create future costs. This implicitly assumes that future persons are intrinsicially of less worth than those alive now – a proposition which, if it were made in reference to spatial distance rather than temporal, would immediately be seen as outrageous.

    Alternatives. One option might be temporary negotiated monitored retrievable storage facilities (as suggested by Kristin Shrader-Frechette, amongst others). As we cannot deep-bury waste, given the levels of uncertainty we then open ourselves up to, the waste must be secure and monitored; as we need to be able to access it to deal with any containment problems etc, it needs to be retrievable (another problem with deep burial); as we are dealing here with the imposition of costs on the present (assuming that some kind of trust fund is set up for covering the costs of storage etc into the future, funded by beneficiaries of nuclear electricity), negotiated, because there needs to be a fully transparent decision making process for the choice of temporary sites. This is obviously the most difficult bit. But as Alex points out, the waste has to be dealt with, and we have all benefited from its production to some degree. To minimise the costs to future generations in this or some similar way, rather than continuing to abuse our ability to profit at their expense, seems the least worst option.

    The point about the deep burial idea is that it (a) makes questionable assumptions about how our responsibility to the future is best dealt with (flytipping) and (b) is used to justify continuing to profit at future generations’ expense by building more nuclear power stations. If we deep-bury, we have not ‘dealt with’ the waste, particularly if we continue creating it in the meantime.

    There is indeed a vicious circle in all this, and here is where it rests, between (a) and (b) – literally going around and around, endlessly producing more waste while the old stuff slowly decays.

  6. G. Tingey said:

    One slight problem.

    For the next 50 years or so, we NEED, WE REALLY NEED nuclear power.

    And actually, if you really don’t want to get at the “waste” ever again, just penetrate-dump it into the bottom of a subduction trench.

  7. Rochenko said:

    Unfortunately, the subduction method raises even more questions than the land deep burial approach. The main argument for permanent land disposal (with which there are demonstrable problems) is that it reduces uncertainty by placing the waste in inert bedrock; the chief problem with subduction zone disposal is that it maximises uncertainty, as not only is the waste being placed in a highly geologically active location, there is currently no reliable evidence as to what is likely to happen to the waste, nor has anything approaching reliable modelling been done.

    Given that the speed at which a tectonic plate moves is of the order of 10-15 cm a year, and the distance a package of waste would have to travel to get below the crust is about 100km, you’re talking about exposing the package to astronomically high pressures in a highly corrosive environment for a very, very long time. If the risks involved in permanent land burial are unquantifiable, then those involved with subduction burial are currently even more so.

    And that’s before the legal issues surrounding sea dumping have even been mentioned.

    Need? That’s quite an assertion. Want, maybe.

  8. G. Tingey said:

    Yes need.

    Until (if) fusion comes on line and/or we get cheap lift to orbit (at which point power supply and industry cease to be a problem or something close to a room-temerature superconductor is developed (Not the liquid-Nitrogen stuff that is just becoming commercially viable right now.
    Or something really off-the-wall like “antigravity” – though it is more likely to be a discovery/development that uses the laws of physics to cheat grevity.
    But that could be next year, or 500 years hence, so don’t bet on it.

  9. Rochenko said:

    Looks like you’re stuck in assertion mode, G. Got an argument in there somewhere?