Reversible Experiments: Putting Geological Disposal to the Test

Science and Engineering Ethics 22 (3):707-733 (2016)
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Abstract

Conceiving of nuclear energy as a social experiment gives rise to the question of what to do when the experiment is no longer responsible or desirable. To be able to appropriately respond to such a situation, the nuclear energy technology in question should be reversible, i.e. it must be possible to stop its further development and implementation in society, and it must be possible to undo its undesirable consequences. This paper explores these two conditions by applying them to geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste. Despite the fact that considerations of reversibility and retrievability have received increased attention in GD, the analysis in this paper concludes that GD cannot be considered reversible. Firstly, it would be difficult to stop its further development and implementation, since its historical development has led to a point where GD is significantly locked-in. Secondly, the strategy it employs for undoing undesirable consequences is less-than-ideal: it relies on containment of severely radiotoxic waste rather than attempting to eliminate this waste or its radioactivity. And while it may currently be technologically impossible to turn high-level waste into benign substances, GD’s containment strategy makes it difficult to eliminate this waste’s radioactivity when the possibility would arise. In all, GD should be critically reconsidered if the inclusion of reversibility considerations in radioactive waste management has indeed become as important as is sometimes claimed.

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Jan Peter Bergen
University of Twente