The Intergenerational and International Justice Dilemmas of Multinational Nuclear Waste Repositories

June 6, 2014

Pilot cave at the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository in Finland, the first such respository in the world. Photo via Wikipedia

This is a revised and substantially expanded version of an op-ed published online on on November 25, 2013

Nuclear energy continues to spawn controversy throughout much of the world. Though many people maintained that Fukushima would herald the end of the nuclear energy era, 45 countries have since expressed serious interest in developing nuclear energy production. In addition to the 434 reactors currently operable in the 30 countries already producing nuclear energy, another 72 reactors are under construction whilst 173 are either on order or planned, and over 300 reactors have been proposed.1

It is highly likely that nuclear energy will keep expanding worldwide which will only intensify all the controversies. These will be partly about the type of technology that each new entering country can access. While the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) grants every new entering country access to nuclear technology for civil purposes in exchange for the acceptance of restrictions and inspections, there is also the issue of dual-use technologies that could be used both for civil and destructive purposes. Two of the main dual-use technologies are enrichment technologies for the enrichment of uranium, and reprocessing technologies for the recycling of nuclear waste that essentially contains proliferation-sensitive plutonium. The example provided by Iran in the last decade vividly illustrates the nature of such controversies in relation to access to nuclear technologies. The case of Iran is particularly relevant because it establishes a precedent for the new countries that are planning to join the 'nuclear club' in the coming decades.

Another important point of controversy is the growing mountain of nuclear waste. This waste, which has already been accumulating for over 50 years, will remain highly radioactive for many thousands of years to come. Safe disposal thus presents a massive challenge to humanity and one that still has to be addressed.

Nuclear Waste: a National or an International Problem?

Currently, there is international consensus that all producing countries are responsible for the underground disposal of their waste. However, there is also growing interest in multinational repositories—places for waste disposal originating from more than one country. Multinational repositories offer considerable potential economic and security (non-proliferation) advantages, particularly for 'small nuclear club' members whose numbers continue to grow. Since small nuclear club countries are not in a strong position to implement self-sufficient national repository programs for all the types of waste produced in their countries, it is these countries that particularly stand to benefit from multinational cooperation on the implementation of a nuclear repository.

Not surprisingly, interest in multinational repositories is thus growing in much of the world. In Asia and the Middle East local interest reflects, in part, the fact that there are already several agreements in place for international cooperation on nuclear waste management, such as what is termed the "fuel leasing"' plan. Iran's power reactor is, for instance, currently "leasing" fuel from Russia. The existence of this leasing agreement has made recent negotiations between 5+1 and Tehran smoother, since the spent nuclear fuel (which contains plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapon) is expected to return to Russia for non-proliferation purposes. There have been serious proposals in the past to expand such fuel leasing programs, particularly from the non-proliferation perspective.

The transnational character of nuclear waste disposal is often under-appreciated. Indeed, in the case of such projects with lifespans of many thousands of years the relevance of national borders is highly questionable. Proponents of multinational repositories often cite Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, which has politically lain within the geographic borders of six different countries in the last century alone. The conclusion to be drawn from this example is that Slovenia can make unilateral, sovereign decisions today but, as national boundaries shift, or successor states emerge, they may well impact other countries in the future. To extend the Ljubljana analogy, in the hypothetical case of Slovenia proving willing to accept the waste of other countries from Europe or elsewhere, should neighboring countries like Austria, Italy, Croatia, and Hungary be involved in the decision-making process and, if so, how?

International Justice Dilemmas

From the point of view of ethics and international justice, there is one potential problem. There is always the possibility that the consent of any given host nation could stem from economic or political imbalance with other countries. It is widely seen as essential to establish national and local public acceptance in the process of deciding upon the locations of multinational repositories. Yet, solely focusing on public acceptance could blind decision-makers to power and/or wealth imbalances between participating countries.

This would not be dissimilar to the situation seen in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was substantial exporting of chemical waste from industrial to non-industrial countries. This was mainly attributable to the tightening of environmental laws in developed countries which led to enormous waste disposal costs. For companies, it became a cheap option to export most of their waste to African states where no such laws existed.

In order to avoid such injustice, the Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was introduced. This prevents producing countries from exporting hazardous chemical waste to other countries. Nuclear waste is not included in the Basel Convention. However, neglecting the ethical issues when locating multinational nuclear repositories could potentially lead to an adjustment of this convention, or to other agreements that would stop the development of multinational nuclear repositories. Indeed, some countries, including Sweden and Brazil, have already introduced national bans for the import and export of nuclear waste. Nevertheless, the issue of multinational repositories remains fairly high on the European Union's political agenda. Both the European Parliament and the European Commission seem to sanction the possibility of exploring European disposal possibilities, and the most recent Waste Directive in Europe also leaves the door open for such European repositories. At present, several EU member states are considering studying the legal, financial, political, and institutional challenges posed by such repositories.2

Intergenerational Justice Dilemmas

Another important aspect of multinational repositories has to do with intergenerational justice issues, which seem to favor such repositories. This requires further technical explanation on how nuclear waste should be managed in the long run. Intergenerational justice, or justice to posterity, has always been one of the key arguments in nuclear waste management. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has introduced the notion that nuclear waste should be managed in such a way that it will not impose "undue burdens" on future generations. All nuclear energy producing countries seem to endorse this notion and they have taken this to mean that nuclear waste should be disposed of in deep underground disposal areas, also known as repositories. In these repositories it is the combination of the engineered barrier and the natural barrier that will allegedly guarantee long-term disposal. The engineered barrier is the canisters that encapsulate waste and are situated in facilities built deep under the earth's surface. The natural barrier is, of course, the geological rock formation.

Isolating waste for such long periods of time creates two different types of tremendous uncertainty: technical and social. The technical uncertainties of repositories relate to the status of the canisters containing waste but, even more importantly, to the hydrological, chemical, and mechanical properties of the surrounding environment. In other words, one might claim that it is the natural geological setting that very much determines how fast radiation will reach the biosphere, if it happens to seep out from the repositories. Since these long-term uncertainties rely on the geological environment of the disposal area we would, in a multinational approach, have the opportunity to opt for geological formations in a country that best guarantees long-term protection.

There is also the matter of social uncertainty in the form of the risk of human intrusion possibly exposing future generations to harmful levels of radiation. What also supports multinational repositories from the perspective of intergenerational justice is the fact that the number of facilities holding risks for the future will be reduced. This decreases the risk of human intrusion in the event of knowledge about the location of repositories being lost. To illustrate this, future generations in Europe would be better off if the 15 current European nuclear power producing countries were to dispose of their nuclear waste in, for example, five rather than 15 separate locations.3

Ethics Guiding Decision-making

To conclude, multinational repositories seem to offer a potential solution. They seem preferable from the perspective of intergenerational justice, but at the same time, they pose various issues of international justice that need to be addressed. If multinational repositories are to be equitable and successful, it is clear that agreement needs to be forged across multiple stakeholder countries. This includes the nations where the repositories are located, the states from which waste is exported, and countries with wider involvement in the issue, such as those through which waste would need to be transported to reach the multinational repository in question. This means that even countries without nuclear energy do have a part to play if multinational repositories are to be ethically justified.

If this issue can be effectively addressed at an international level there will be key advantages to concentrating nuclear waste derived from several countries in multinational repositories, rather than setting up an ever-expanding number of national sites. The safe disposal of nuclear waste presents a massive challenge to humanity. In seeking a solution, ethics should not be turned into an afterthought but should rather be used to steer decision-making on what amounts to appropriate nuclear waste disposal.


1 The information is drawn from the World Nuclear Association databases (last updated 1 April 2014):

2 See for more information on the Erdo Working Group website.

3 This section is partly drawn from the following article, in which I am elaborately discussing these intergenerational justice arguments. Taebi, B. 2012. Multinational nuclear waste repositories and their complex issues of justice. Ethics, Policy & Environment 15 (1): 57-62

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