letter to the editor: Charles McCombie

1 March 2002

I feel it is necessary to respond to the article "A deontological solution to the waste problem" which appeared in the November 2001 issue of NEI. Despite my personally being a strong and life-long supporter of nuclear power, I thought that the article presented exaggerated extreme pro-nuclear arguments which appear designed to:

• Justify continued nuclear power production (but not unfortunately by employing the powerful safety, environmental and economic arguments which could properly be made).

• Advocate pressing ahead with expensive reprocessing and fast breeder development (at a time when neither can be economically justified).

• Promote surface storage of wastes for unthinkably long times, primarily, it appears, as a means of avoiding up-front expenditure by nuclear power producers (despite the demonstrated willingness of producers in most of the world to fulfil their moral responsibilities to seek permanent solutions).

Despite my own lack of familiarity with ethical concepts, the assertions in the article seem naïve at best. Deontological ethics should be based on a sense of duty towards other individuals. The article selectively chooses which individuals are to be weighed more highly, in order to justify ignoring ethical principles already built into waste management strategies. The argument that resources could be spent in the third world instead of in preparing expensive geological repositories is applicable to every high-tech environmental initiative in the world.

The fundamental agreed ethical principles that he avoids even stating clearly are that individuals, now and in the future, should be protected from possible harmful effects of radioactive wastes and that this protection should be provided as far as possible by those current generations profiting from nuclear power, rather than by passing on undue burdens to future generations. We in the nuclear waste management community are justifiably proud of the exemplary role in environmental ethics which has been taken here.

The article makes a series of assertions and omissions which must be briefly corrected. It underestimates massively the problem of maintaining buildings capable of completely isolating radioactive waste for 2000 years! The big problem is not catastrophic events which would make effects of releases look trivial by comparison; it is rather the likelihood of society losing interest or withdrawing funding leading to gradual decay of stores.

The article overestimates massively the potential advantages of partitioning and transmutation of wastes. This may never be scientifically and economically feasible for much of the wastes produced in the past or the future. A good example is the huge amounts of ILW which must be disposed of in the UK. The problems of space disposal are trivialised, again in particular for large volumes of long-lived wastes.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - the article ignores the fact that geological disposal, in scientific and technical circles at least, is widely recognised to offer a very safe, permanent solution for waste disposal.

Of course, this wide scientific consensus is not shared by all of the public. The reasons for the lack of sufficient public trust and confidence, however, include the confusion and doubts raised in the public mind by spurious arguments like the ones in the article being commented upon here!

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