Past, present and future - A subjective approach

1 February 2003

We have made great progress in our objective understanding of waste management issues but, for years, we have ignored the subjective world around us. By Alec J Baer

Over the last fifty years or so, we have learned to recognise, sort out, handle and transport the various types of radioactive waste. We have developed a number of storage techniques. We have examined and evaluated just about every practical (and some impractical) method for disposal. We have made considerable progress in dismantling and decommissioning nuclear installations, and, most importantly, we have written the book on safe management of radioactive waste in the form of the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, a convention that has now been in force for over a year.

And yet, we have not done as well as we were hoping to. We have run into unexpected difficulties and the pace of our achievements has been progressively slowing down. In his opening address at the IAEA's International Conference on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management held in Córdoba, Spain in March 2000, Abel Gonzalez, speaking for the IAEA, aptly summarised the situation:

"The technological problems of assuring the safe management of radioactive waste seem to have been solved. However, as a result of certain public perceptions about the risks attributable to radioactive waste, the final disposal of high-level waste has become unfeasible in many parts of the world."

Beyond technology

One interesting theory is that the problem lies in the lack of a lobby for radioactive waste disposal. Indeed, who wants to lobby in favour of radioactive waste disposal?

Certainly not politicians: they cannot win elections on that platform.

Scientists and technologists contend that this is a political issue. The nuclear industry is in no hurry to spend money on disposal, and anti-nuclear groups argue that safe disposal is impossible.

We technologists have developed a rational approach to the safe management of radioactive waste. Our progress has been based on observations, on logical reasoning and on increments of knowledge accumulated in a systematic, linear way. The physical laws that our approach is based on are universally valid.

In the world at large, however, this objective approach is not the rule, but the exception. Subjectivity and emotions control human societies. Individuals interact subjectively with their surroundings and develop a network of personal perceptions of the physical, social or political context in which they live. Political positions will be subjective and emotional, but will never possess the universal value of a technological realisation.

For years, the technological waste management community has systematically ignored the subjective world around it. We have made great progress in our objective understanding of issues at stake but we have gravely neglected this subjective world that we fail to understand anyway, and we have now come into serious conflict with it.

In more and more meetings we are now insisting on the need for greater transparency, for better communication and for greater stakeholder involvement. This is all well and good but we need more. We need to aim for a symbiosis between the objective and linear world of technology and the non-linear networked world of the public, to reach a situation that a biologist would call "mutualism", where two organisms grow together because they both benefit from this situation, even though each one would be able to survive independently.

Technical solutions

To most of us, deep geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste for periods of several tens of thousands of years is the best solution available for this waste. And near surface disposal of low-level waste on appropriately designed sites for periods of 300 years or more is the best solution available for this particular waste.

Technologists will insist that waste be managed safely, but I do not know of any objective way to measure safety. The answer to the famous question of "how safe is safe enough?" is a subjective one. We must therefore be ready to accept that the solution that is finally adopted in any particular case, is not the best from the technological point of view, but the one that the population concerned subjectively judges to be the most appropriate.

A disposal or a storage site must satisfy technical requirements, but it must also satisfy those requirements that are given by the group of people which is directly affected. These demands will not just have to be taken into account, but they will dominate and control all future developments, even if they contradict our technological approach. The technology that we apply to the management of radioactive waste, including its disposal, is universal, but the way in which it will be applied is not. There can only be, and there will only be, local solutions.

In a majority of countries progress on disposal sites is facing determined opposition from inside society. As far as a majority of the citizens of those countries are concerned, storage of radioactive waste does not appear to cause much concern, even though the volumes in storage are increasing, year after year. This state of affairs would appear to suggest that in these countries, society favours long-term storage over disposal, at least tacitly. In other words, a technically inferior solution is being preferred to a technically superior one.

So, what should we do? Can we not come up with better solutions?

Alternative solutions

I believe that we should step back and re-examine with an open mind the entire philosophy of waste management and disposal. We have made considerable progress and we have learned much over the last 50 years. We have discovered the critical importance of subjective, emotional decisions in the decision-making process. We have now taken care of the major technological challenges and we have to resolve the social and political issues that stand in the way of radioactive waste disposal. We live in the real world of emotions and politics and not in the protected world of science. Clearly, technologists need to reorientate their efforts and to collaborate with non-technicians such as sociologists.

A technical agency

Having come this far, can we count on the support of the IAEA for the next steps? Will the IAEA - a technical agency - be ready to deal with non-technical issues? This is a question of policy, to be answered by its board of governors. I really hope that its members will understand the crucial importance of this new approach and thus encourage further progress in radioactive waste disposal.

Short licences

We understand that there will be as many solutions as there are sites, and we may just find out that, with a little more imagination and a little more sensibility, or more accurately what the untranslatable German word Fingerspitzengefühl means (literally: the feeling in your fingertips), we will find solutions that are acceptable to most stakeholders.

Why not, for instance, build disposal sites for hundreds of thousands of years, as we have been suggesting, but licence them for 100 years only? This would allow for retrievability and reversibility. After 100 years one would want to take into account recent scientific and technological developments before renewing a licence for another century. By contrast with longer periods, a century is a period of time that most people can still subjectively relate to. It is also sufficiently short relative to the time that we expect disposal sites to last that presumably no major correction would be necessary at the time of a licence renewal.

When you think of it, buildings and constructions of previous generations have lasted much longer than one century. Think of the Romans or of the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages or of the Incas and of many more. Except under tropical conditions, damage to these earlier structures has more often been caused by mankind than by nature. This, incidentally, corroborates my opinion that rather than protecting humanity from the effects of radioactive waste, it is imperative to protect radioactive waste from future human activities.

Periodic licence renewal of disposal sites is of course not a new idea but such an approach would seem to offer better safety conditions than most interim storage arrangements and, in the final analysis, the only concern common to all stakeholders is the safety of the management of radioactive waste.

Delayed closure

Another, very similar, 'middle of the road' solution would be a final repository that remains open for 100 years, 200 years, 300 years or at least until some future generation decides that it is time to close it. This seems to be an option that is being considered and that maybe needs to be considered further.

It is worth noting that keeping the site open for 300 years assumes that we are able to extrapolate present social conditions 300 years into the future. Three hundred years ago, Louis XIV was on the throne in France and, on the east coast of North America, there were a few European colonies trying to make a living. If those people had tried to imagine what it would be like 300 years in the future, they couldn't possibly have imagined what is happening today. I therefore cannot believe that any one of us can imagine the social situation 300 years down the road.

At any rate, if we choose one of these 'middle of the road' solutions, rather than straightforward final disposal, we have to take a few precautions. We have to make sure that the waste is packaged in a 'final' form - you don't want the waste to be packaged then repackaged again and again. The information that accompanies it should be in a form that can be passed on to future generations, and those future generations should be told how we think the site should be closed. We have a certain technological knowledge of what we think should happen to these disposal sites, so we should not simply let this knowledge disappear and assume the others will find a final solution.

An undue burden

These solutions are in line with the trend towards greater acceptance of provisions for retrievability and reversibility. At the Córdoba meeting these were relatively new issues, and they were debated and the tenor was yes, sure but really we don't want that; we want to go for final disposal. Now it seems to me that these concepts are taken as part of the normal expectations: this is a realistic option, this is not necessarily technically ideal, but it is politically very important and therefore it is part of the picture.

Along with this change in attitude, there has been an interesting shift in the understanding of the phrase "no undue burden for future generations". If you think back, originally it was quite clear its meaning was absolute: any one generation takes care of its own waste and the next generation never has to worry about it. Then there was a slight change in thinking: some people began to ask what exactly is meant by the word "undue"? Perhaps the meaning of "undue" is not what we originally thought; maybe there can be some due burdens. We now talk about not foreclosing options for future generations, which is fair enough, but there is some vagueness built into this combination of no undue burden and not foreclosing options, and I believe that this vagueness should be examined. We should try and understand what really is behind it: did we make a mistake by saying no undue burden, or should we go back to a strict narrow definition? Sitting on a fence may be politically astute, but is rarely comfortable for very long!

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