Governing Long-Term Risks in Radioactive Waste Management: Reversibility and Knowledge Transfer Across Generations

Friday, 19 December 2014: 4:30 PM
Markku Lehtonen, University of Sussex, Brighton, BN1, United Kingdom
Safe management of the long-lived and high-level radioactive waste originating primarily from nuclear power stations requires isolating and confining the waste for periods up to 100 000 years. Disposal in deep geological formations is currently the solution advocated by international organisations (e.g. the IAEA and the OECD-NEA) and governments, but nowhere in the world is such repository for civilian nuclear waste in operation yet. Concerns about the governance of the involved risks and uncertainties for such long periods lie at the heart of the controversies that have slowed down the identification of a solution. In order to draw lessons potentially relevant for the governance of long-term climate risks, this paper examines the ways in which two interrelated aspects have been addressed in nuclear waste management in France, the US, and the Nordic countries.

The first issue concerns “reversibility” – i.e. the possibility on one hand to retrieve the waste once it has been disposed of in a repository, and on the other to return at any point in time along the decision-making process to the previous decision-making phase. Reversibility constitutes today a fundamental, legally binding requirement in French radioactive waste policy. A strategy for managing risk and uncertainty as such, reversibility nevertheless also poses significant safety challenges of its own.

The second topic goes beyond the timescales (max. 300 years) in which reversibility is usually considered applicable, addressing the question of intergenerational knowledge transfer, comparing the Nordic and the American approaches to the issue. The key challenge here is ensuring the transfer to the future generations – for periods up to 100 000 years – of sufficient knowledge concerning the siting, characteristics and management of the waste deposited in a repository. Even more fundamentally, instead of knowledge transfer, should we rather aim at “active forgetting”, in order to prevent the curious in the future from intruding into the repository?

Finally, lessons are drawn for the governance of climate risks, on the basis of the experience of reversibility and intergenerational knowledge transfer in nuclear waste governance.