An egalitarian response to utilitarian analysis of long-lived pollution: The case of high-level radioactive waste

Environmental Ethics 22 (1):43-62 (2000)
Abstract
High-level radioactive waste is not fundamentally different from all other pollutants having long life spans in the biosphere. Nevertheless, its management has been treated differently by policy makers in the United States as well as most other nations, who have chosen permanent isolation from the biosphere as the objective of high-level radioactive waste disposal policy. This policy is to be attained by burial deep within stable geologic formations. The fundamental justification for this policy choice has been provided by utilitarian ethical analysis. It, in turn, has been supported primarily by assumptions, based on expert opinion, about the ultimate safety of geologic disposal. However, close analysis of these assumptions reveals that the safety of geologic disposal is highly uncertain. Moreover, factors such as the possibility for human intrusion into repository sites make it impossible to even guess at the ultimate consequences of any policy choice pertaining to the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste. I discuss why utilitarian ethics cannot be used to determine the efficacy of such policy choices. I then develop an alternative approach which is based on egalitarian principles of procedure and utilize it to explore policy proposals which promote justice and equity in the high-level radioactive waste management process. I argue that there are two possible solutions to the high-level radioactive waste dilemma: (1) an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to create an institution to advocate on behalf of the interests of future generations and (2) the active management of the waste in monitored, retrievable facilities in perpetuity. Of these two options, I find maintaining surveillance and vigilance in perpetuity to safeguard high-level radioactive waste to be preferable because of its political and ethical efficacy
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