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The 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA and the 2011 seismic events in Japan have brought into sharp relief the vulnerabilities involved in storing nuclear waste on the land’s surface. Nuclear engineers and waste managers are deciding that disposing nuclear waste deep underground is the preferred management option. However, deep disposal of nuclear waste is replete with enormous technical uncertainties. A proposed solution to protect against both the technical vagaries of deep disposal and the dangers of surface events is to store the nuclear waste at shallow depths underground. This paper explores social and ethical issues that are relevant to such shallow storage, including security motivations, intergenerational equity, nuclear stigma, and community acceptance. One of the main ethical questions to emerge is whether it is right for the present generation to burden local communities and future generations with these problems since neither local peoples nor future people have sanctioned the industrial and military processes that have produced the waste in the first place.
International Journal of Technoethics, 2(2), 1-13, April-June 2011 1
Copyright © 2011, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
Keywords: Ethics,Inter-GenerationalEquity,NuclearWaste,ShallowStorage,WasteDisposal
Nuclear waste comes in a variety of forms, rang-
ing from low level radioactively-contaminated
materials, such as radiated clothing and equip-
ment, to high level radioactive waste such as
spent nuclear fuel rods and plutonium. The high-
level waste is incredibly dangerous; if a human
were to ingest just micrograms, Fetter and von
Hippel (1990) point out, it would probably be
The Middle Ground for Nuclear
Waste Management:
Social and Ethical Aspects
of Shallow Storage
shallowstorage,includingsecuritymotivations,intergenerationalequity,nuclearstigma,and community
a fatal dose. The low-level waste is also very
dangerous if not contained properly since its
escape into the human environment could cause
large increases in cancer rates (Perlic, 1990).
Technical approaches about how to store or
dispose of nuclear waste stress the importance
of the following question: ‘where do we put
it?’ Most of the time, the proposed answer to
this question involves discussions about how to
isolate the waste from the human environment.
Suggestions in this matter are numerous and
varied (NRC, 2001; Alexander & Mckinley,
2007) from burying it deep below the Earth
(usually two to four kilometres), to dispersing
DOI: 10.4018/jte.2011040101
2 International Journal of Technoethics, 2(2), 1-13, April-June 2011
Copyright © 2011, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
the waste far away into open ocean spaces, or
even launching it into extraterrestrial space.
All of the above are problematic for tech-
nical reasons, political reasons, managerial
reasons and ethical reasons, and all the above
should be approached within the scope of tech-
noethics, since they involve problems about a)
technologically created pollution, b) unevenly
distributed environmental risk, and c) demo-
cratically-dubious technical decision-making.
For instance, the decision to bury nuclear waste
more than a few hundred metres below the sur-
face will probably subject future peoples and
the local environment to the vagaries of untried
technologies, uncertain geological knowledge
and probable hydrological return of radioac-
tive liquids. Dispersing waste into the oceans
would undoubtedly contaminate marine life
and probably devastate some ocean resources.
Blasting nuclear waste into space makes the
human environment vulnerable to a Challenger
or Columbia-type accident that would create
radioactive fall-out in hemispheric proportions.
Given the problems noted above, an alter-
native answer to the question ‘where do we put
it?’ might rely less on final disposal--which can
never fulfill its promise to permanently isolate
radioactive waste from the human and natural
environment--but to leave it on the surface where
it can be watched and taken care of. This solution
keeps the waste visible and actively-managed
instead of hidden and buried away where it may
do unpredictable things in the near or long-term
future. This ‘surface storage’ idea was often-
supported waste management option until a)
the 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA, and b)
the 2011 seismic events in eastern Japan. These
events showed up the vulnerabilities of nuclear
facilities located on the surface. Before these
events, though, the real reason that surface stores
were popular and supported usually revolved
around their relative ease of construction and
lower cost rather than some higher ideals to do
with good management of environmental risk.
It should probably be considered quite
strange that surface stores have become seen
as ‘very risky’ only in the past 10 years since,
throughout the history of the ‘Atomic Age’,
numerous accidents have occurred at surface
storage sites. A very short list could include the
following events:
- The 1957 Kyshtym nuclear waste accident,
Russia (in which a cooling system failure in
a waste facility failed, resulting in massive
and widespread radioactive contamina-
- The 1966 US Air Force nuclear accident,
Spain (in which nuclear material was spread
about the Spanish coastal countryside as a
result of two planes colliding, before being
buried—both physically and politically),
- The 1967 Mayak nuclear waste accident,
Russia (in which unsecured radioactive
dust blew off of a containment site before
contaminating large populated areas).
- The 1972 West Valley nuclear waste ac-
cident, USA (in which 600,000 gallons of
high-level wastes leaked into the environ-
ment, including Lakes Ontario and Erie).
- The 1973 Hanford nuclear waste accident,
USA (in which thousands of cubic meters
of radioactive waste flowed out of a nuclear
weapons complex),
- The 1981 Muroroa nuclear waste ac-
cident, French Territory (in which a tor-
nado washed nuclear waste from a French
nuclear site into a Pacific lagoon).
- The 1985 Karlsruhe nuclear waste accident,
Germany (in which a barrel of nuclear waste
went up in flames),
- The 2010 Hunterston nuclear waste acci-
dent, Scotland (in which radioactive liquid
leaked into the Firth of Clyde).
So, if not on the surface (and if not deep
underground) then yet another option must
emerge as we ask ‘where do we put nuclear
waste?’ An up and coming suggestion is
‘we should put it somewhere in the middle’;
somewhere between surface storage and deep
disposal. This is the ‘shallow storage’ option.
A shallow store would be situated between 20
to 100 metres underground; deep enough to
evade most terrorist attacks and tsunamis, it
is said, but shallow enough to keep an eye on.
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