The Social and Ethical Aspects of Nuclear Waste

By Marshall, Alan | Electronic Green Journal, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Social and Ethical Aspects of Nuclear Waste


Marshall, Alan, Electronic Green Journal


Nuclear waste management seems to exist in a perpetual state of crises. For 50 years the nuclear states of the world have fought, and generally lost, the battle to deal with the nuclear waste problem. Worldwide, there is a growing acknowledgement within industry and government that social and ethical issues are just as important as technical issues when developing safe programs for nuclear waste management. This paper is a review of some of the outstanding social and ethical issues that are influencing discussions on nuclear waste management around the world.

Social Equity in Nuclear Waste Management

There are many ways that nuclear waste management has the potential to be socially inequitable: burdening certain groups of society with more than their fair share of risks and costs. The following sections outline salient social themes that have emerged as the nuclear nations in the world attempt to deal with nuclear waste.

Nuclear Stigma

According to work by Slovic, Layman, and Flynn (1993, p. 64) nuclear waste can be regarded as the top neighbor from hell, ranking higher than oil refineries, chemical plants, garbage dumps and even nuclear power stations as the most undesirable facility to live beside.

The aversion to things nuclear, including nuclear waste, is often referred to as nuclear stigma and it has a number of possible effects: economic, social, political, cultural and psychological. With regard to the last of these, while there may be a case to state that the people of nuclear host communities are active in the construction of a positive nuclear identity, it is apparent that some members of the public are concerned about the mental stress of living close to a nuclear site (or the prospect of the same) (Dunlap , Rosa, Baxter & Mitchell, 1993; Edelstein, 1988). In such circumstances, if nuclear waste managers are to take social issues seriously then maybe they should consider the ideas brought out by the likes of Lois Wilson (2000, p. 87), and Wendy Oser and Molly Young Brown (1996) who suggest professional counseling in some form should be provided to local individuals or groups. Kristen Shrader-Frechette (1993) suggests also that giving citizens funding for education and health might alleviate this problem, as might delegating authority to monitor stress to the community itself. This would allow local people to have some degree of self-help capacity over their own psychological and stress problems.

Another type of stigma that may rear its head in the siting of radioactive waste facilities is that associated with moral stigma. Easterling and Kunreuther (1995, p. 137) indicate that the moral qualms that people feel toward nuclear weapons seem to have generalized to civilian nuclear power. And thence, to anything nuclear, such as the radioactive waste left over from nuclear weapons and nuclear power production. In this case, if a nuclear waste management facility goes against the morals of individuals, it is not only politically problematic, giving rise to resistance, but ethically problematic, asking people to live with a facility they find morally objectionable. As far as these people are concerned, it is flippant for nuclear waste facility planners to derail weapons/waste connections by indicating that they are only involved in the rear-end of the nuclear cycle, when so much of the waste was produced for military purposes.

Nuclear stigma has also been identified as having identifiably negative economic consequences. New industries may be reluctant to set up near nuclear waste facilities in fear that their products will suffer negative nuclear stereotyping (Great Britain, Parliament, House of Lords, Select Committee on Science and Technology, 1999, p. 43).

In the states of Nevada and Texas, for example, pre-emptive concerns were expressed regarding the reputations of the tourist and cattle industries when sites in these states were considered for nuclear waste facilities proposed by the U. …

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