Science in Christian Perspective



Nuclear Waste: Beyond Faust and Fate
Margaret N. Maxey
Assistant Director of the South Carolina Energy Research Institute, 
Suite 670, First National Bank Budding, Columbia, South Carolina 29201.

From: JASA 32 (June1980): 97-101.

Ever since Alvin Weinberg's celebrated lament over the "Faustian bargain"' made by "we nuclear people," it has become increasingly fashionable to dwell on the hazards of radioactive wastes as the epitome of that reprehensible trafficking with the devil. Otherwise intelligent people simply take it as an unquestioned "given" that the production of nuclear wastes is a unique, unprecedented problem for which there is as yet no technical solution-much less a politically expedient and publicly acceptable solution. Having accepted this "given," the major architects of our current rancorous public dispute over nuclear technology have begun to make an appeal to moral values and ethical principles as if they were substitutes for scientific evidence. Moreover, it is widely believed that in matters of morality and ethical judgment, "everyone is an expert," or to say the same thing, "no one is an expert." The political advantage gained by those who nourish this belief is that neither ethics nor policymaking can escape from a morass of opinion. Unless we reject this belief, ethics will he held hostage by the struggle for political power to mobilize "public opinion" and "popular sentiment." Unless it is based on sound principles and substantiating evidence, a public policy stands only for the prevailing fashion of the times.

Social Justice and Hazard Management

As a fundamental bioethical principle for organizing evidence and dealing with conflicting opinions, I propose this formulation: Social justice requires an equitable management of potential hazards which might have harmful health effects and unjustifiable social consequences.

By "equitable management" I mean that policy makers should first be comprehensively informed about the broad spectrum of both natural and ordinary hazards that may have health effects for large segments of the population; then make comparisons of actual costs per capita to reduce these effects; and only then make policies and set standards that will get the most public health protection for the many out of a finite amount of money. Potential hazards management is ethically equitable only if it is proportional in relation to actual basic harm that can be identified and reduced by expenditures of human effort, time and money.

Establishing Public Policy

Translating this principle into public policy is by no means straightforward and easy. The fallout generated by the media coverage of Three Mile Island and ensuing public hysteria over radiation foreshadow a period of serious reckoning for a nation which purports to make public policy through democratic processes.2 Those engaged in writing obituaries and epitaphs for nuclear technology, whether applied in medicine or electricity generation, are well aware that "nuclear wastes" are the kingpin that can bring down an industry.3 It is understandable that recognizing scientific and technical disagreements is not sufficient. Policy makers must recognize that opponents of nuclear technology in general, and of current waste disposal options in particular, have developed several arguments which appeal to nonscientific moral and ethical premises. Briefly, these can be summed up in two statements.

First, indefinite delay of high-level waste disposal facilities is regarded as morally preferable to a policy of implementing one of       several currently available options.
Second, it is claimed that involuntary risks of radiation exposure imposed on present and unconsnlted future generations violate ethical principles of social justice and equity.

The Call for an Indefinite Delay

With regard to the first premise, calls for indefinite delay and for more and more thorough geological, seismic, and environmental pathways analyses derive from the perception that the volume and radioactive properties of fission wastes are utterly foreign to human experience. Despite the fact that the volumes and hazardous toxic properties of municipal, industrial, and commercial wastes are far more excessive and accessible to people through multiple environmental pathways, radioactive wastes are being singled out for special treatment because people have been induced to believe there is something menacing and sinister about radiation sources. When ordinary people are asked why they have such a nameless fear of radiation and radioactive wastes, the response is that they are "the most toxic substance known to man;" they are not found in nature but are "man-made;" and "they have hazardous lifetimes of a quarter of a million years." The longevity of their hazardous lifetimes makes people leap to the conclusion that the risks to unconsulted future generations will last until the wastes are reduced to "harmless levels" by natural radioactive decay processes. From that imaginative leap comes the line of argument that the production of radiowastes, and proposed criteria for designing a waste repository, are unethical. The present generation reaps the benefits but exports the hazards into the future-a violation of distributive justice, equity and participation.

Besides the risk/benefit argument, there is also the legacy/longevity argument. No responsible person would ever rely on the stability and longevity of social institutions or human fallibility in the future. No matter what the cost to present generations, there must he an absolute guarantee provided by engineering technology that there will be permanent containment of the wastes in non-leachable receptacles within a selected repository, as well as permanent isolation of the wastes from the biosphere. Some even insist that our ethical responsibility to future generations is not fulfilled by sequestering the wastes permanently; we must also assume that there might be some leak or spewing forth from a repository, either as a result of accidental disruptions or intentional intrusions, and therefore set regulatory standards to limit a potential radiological impact on whole populations.

In both arguments, the length of radioactive half-life dictates the problem and undermines proposals for a solution. The common assumption shared by unending arguments about radioactive wastes is that the mere existence of that source of radiation is equivalent to an unacceptable risk. The risks perceived are measured according to the million-year rate of decay of isotopes and actinides, as well as the number of lethal doses they contain-enough to wipe out a population many times over.

To use this assumption as an ethical basis for formulating arguments about any risk from a potential biohazard, especially radioactive wastes, is absurd. It is totally inconsistent with established legal precedents, scientific evidence, and intellectual integrity. If we actually measure unacceptable risks to our environmental quality by measuring the half-life or rate of decay of toxic elements in common household and industrial use -or their potential for lethal doses to a population then we would not be talking about spending billions of dollars on burying radiowastes. We would demand our Congress to enact legislation for permanent geological burial of lead, mercury, chromium, arsenic, chlorine, cyanide, and many other elements whose half-life is infinite. They are not radioactive. Hence they are not easily detected and monitored in our environment as are radioactive elements. They will never decay to harmless levels. They have been and will continue to remain in our biosphere affecting our environmental qualitynot for a thousand or a million years, but forever. This is fortunate, because they are valuable, highly useful, and controllable resources from which we derive countless benefits. If we are to be ethical and equitable, the same yardstick must he applied to radioactive elements. Moreover, "waste" begins only where human ingenuity and inventiveness ends.

It is instructive that our federal government has spent over $i billion over the past thirty years to research the biological effects of nuclear sources of radiation. But it is only in the last decade that sophisticated instrumentation arid refined assay methods for measuring highly toxic chemical agents in common industrial use has been developed-and with it an upsurge in public alarm as chemical waste "dumps" (such as the Love Canal) have been discovered and sensationalized by the media. There is a fairly obvious correlation between the massive information flow to the public about radiation hazards, and the mounting public concern to which competing regulatory agencies want to appear responsive, protective and indispensable to the public.

From a bioethical perspective, any risks of adverse health effects from radiation sources, both to present and future generations, must be measured only in relation to environmental pathways which determine the degree of likelihood of harmful exposure of and assimilation by the human body. All of the pathways analyses to date have measured those potential risks and found them to be vanishingly small.4

Moreover, a geotoxicity calculation has considered only eight toxic elements naturally occurring in the earth's crust and continuously leached into food and water supplies which we daily use. Those elements are mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, selenium, barium, arsenic and uranium.5 If our entire electrical supply for 100 years came from nuclear fissioning of uranium, and we buried the wastes, the resulting increase in the toxicity of the earth's crust would he one ten-millionth of one per cent (0.0000001%). Those attempting to invalidate that comparison have argued that the other toxic elements are distributed more uniformly, but that the waste would be concentrated in a few repositories. The fact of the matter is that nature has also concentrated toxic minerals in ore bodies. Cohen states:

It can be shown that in a few hundred years the repository contents become relatively less toxic than typical mercury deposits and in about 1000 years it becomes less than the uranium ore body from which the nuclear fuel was originally derived.
The ore body is at least as available to dissolution and transport as is the waste repository.

The general public scents unaware that the technology exists to meet the most sensible of "performance criteria" for waste disposal facilities. These criteria require that ultimate waste disposal shall be conducted in such a way that there is no net increase in risk of harm by comparison with the typical ore body of natural uranium which yields the energy from which the wastes are derived. In other words, the wastes can be disposed of in a way that returns them to the same (if not better) level of risk than posed by natural uranium ore in the earth's crust. This criterion requires that the waste form have the same stability as the original ore body; that the medium containing the wastes retains the same integrity as the medium containing the ore; and that geological media surrounding and isolating the wastes retain the same integrity of isolation from the biosphere as that isolating the original ore bodies. If current technology can meet these requirements, then the American public cannot logically demand greater assurance.

The risk-perception and arguments advanced in favor of an indefinite delay and ever more exhaustive study of waste disposal options are insubstantial at best. Under the guise of moral preferability, the pursuit of technical perfection may he either a political instrument of obstructionists who are publicly committed to using any strategy to eliminate nuclear electricity in the United States, or a self-serving strategy of underemployed professionals in geology, seismology, hydrology, etc. In either case, the best has become the enemy of the good. The risks emoted and litigated about are minor when compared with much greater risks of doing nothing about a problem that is not going to go away. The disposition made of radiowastes calls attention to the fact that other wastes are becoming even more problematic. Positive, constructive policies of action rather than negative policies of inaction are clearly an ethical imperative.

Involuntary Exposure

Turning to the second premise, it is claimed that involuntary risks of radiation exposure imposed on unconsulted present and future generations violate ethical principles of social justice and equity.
A self-styled public interest group has recently disseminated a critique of criteria for radioactive waste management proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.6 The authors of the critique assume that longevity of hazardous lifetimes of radioactive wastes constitutes an unfair imposition of hazards and risks upon unconsulted future generations. Hence, they are of the opinion that the ethical principles of equity and participation require criteria to be neutral to future generations. They preface their own proposed criteria by stating that:

The least unfair way of managing intertensporal relationships is for each generation to try to leave the earth as it was when they arrived. As a goal, the only acceptable distribution of hazards and benefits is the neutral allocation, where no pattern of benefits and hazards is imposed. (p. 28)

By espousing as a fundamental philosophical principle, "non-degradation of the environment," the Natural Resources Defense Council joins with the Sierra Club in defining a "degraded environment" as any place that human actions have affected or changed. Although chastising the EPA for evading what they choose to call "the fundamental mandate of EPA" and "an uncompromisable standard"-namely "non-degradation of the environment"-the NRDC authors commend the EPA at one point for comparing hazards from human activity to hazards from the "pre-existing natural state of the area."' Their stated reason for feeling that this is an appropriate standard is that "it emphasizes the role of a trustee as one who maintains the nonrenewable environmental as it was originally, to pass on to the next trustee." This fundamental goal is a key consideration, "because if any degradation is allowed (in the name of "allowable radiation exposure") there is no clear bound at which degradation becomes, by anyone's standard, too much."3,4

Formulas such as these conceal two questionable presuppositions:

(1) that an untouched "natural environment" by definition manifests a superior, if not sacred order which human interventions violate to some degree:
(2) that a trustee of a so-called natural environment can do nothing more not less than pass it along in its original pristine
state: to do otherwise is to be guilty of a moral wrong.

The philosophy of non-degradation has a long history, as is clear to anyone who has read Book I of Ceurgius Agricola's De Re Metallica published in 1556.7 This sixteenth century inventory of objections to disturbing the environment makes it abundantly clear that those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.

Furthermore, a philosophy of non-degradation uncritically assumes the idea that a benign environment is rapidly being ruined by human beings. However, the historical record attests that an untamed environment has repeatedly wrought massive human degradation through catastrophic effects of famines, plagues, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. The fundamental problem about man's interaction with the environment is not to maintain some simplistic ideal of "non-degradation." Rather the problem is a highly complex one of devising appropriate means to protect both life-sustaining and aesthetic qualities of the biosphere, and at the same time develop technologies which provide basic human goods as a necessary condition for maintaining a preferred environmental quality. As a fundamental, meaningful principle for securing that environmental protection, "non-degradation" is vacuous.

In their preoccupation with risks to future generations and a proposed ethical principle of neutrality, the NRDC authors seem committed to perpetuating the specious assumption discussed above, namely, that the hazards of radioactive waste foist unprecedented risks onto unconsulted future generations because the index of their hazard to the future is measured by and equivalent to the longevity of their radioactive half-life. Intellectual honesty should compel those who know better to state as often as necessary that any risks of adverse health effects from radiation sources must be measured only in relation to the degree of likelihood of actual harmful exposure.

Our concern for "risks bequeathed to future generations" will he better expressed if we reject two simpleminded notions: (1) that such risks have an existence in splendid isolation from the benefits which justify them and (2) that such ethical principles as equity and participation require a neutral allocation of risks and benefits to the future (even if that were attainable in actuality.)

The first notion merits rejection because the legacy of any generation to an immediate as well as remote future is not mere "risks" and "hazards." To the contrary, our legacy to the future is an entire social order striving to provide basic material well-being, institutional stahility, and creative freedom for its citizenry. Risks, promises, harms, and benefits are inseparably interdependent within any sustainable social order. If only we could manage to balance our excessive concern and expenditure of public money to reduce risks from but one potential hazard, radioactive wastes, with a concern to reduce the risks we are bequeathing to future generations from the unsolved problems of starvation, poverty and racism-then our legacy would indeed be a spiritually gratifying benefit for our common humanity.

As for the second notion, the ethical principle of equity requires a society to provide its citizens with reliable access to those basic goods which sustain material well-being. The principle of participation requires a society to provide institutionalized methods of consent for its citizens, who in turn are obligated to contribute to and abide by outcomes of those methods. To reduce the broader content of these ethical principles to a narrow consideration of but one potential biohazard having illdefined and misconceived risks is an intellectual travesty. It is pretentious for anyone to arrogate to themselves the wisdom either to decide for future generations what is in their best interest in securing basic goods and protection from basic harms, or to suppress-under the guise of "neutrality" to the future"-any method of devising conceptual tools which might enable the present generation to deal constructively with its uncertainties and responsibility toward the living in the present generation. Our primary ethical responsibility is for the living who happen to be the only foundation we have to provide for the well-being of future generations.

Equitable Management

A proper understanding of the ethical principles of social justice and equity should be expressed in the fundamental bioethical principle already noted, namely, the equitable management of hazards having a potential for adverse effects on public health and safety.

The disputed question of adequate standards for radiation protection in relation, in this case, to waste disposal facilities has been compounded by a widespread public misconception about "safety"-especially as it relates to risk acceptability. The working assumption of policy makers and regulators has been that safety is an intrinsic, measurable, absolute property that any given system, or product, or activity can and should possess. To the contrary, however, safety is not an intrinsic property measured by approaching zero-risk. Safety is an evolving, relational value-judgment derived from current personal or social priorities on a scale of real possibility. Risks can be scientifically measured, quantified to an extent, and predicted in probabilistic terms. Safety, however, cannot be measured, much less pre-determined by the presence or absence of risks. Judgments of safety are judgments about the justifiability or unjustifiability of harm.
I concur with my colleague in social ethics, George Pickering, in his observation that "we are going to have to do more than find some level of 'acceptable risk;' we are going to have to come to terms with the question of 'justifiable harm.' There are, after all, some kinds of harm which cannot be avoided; but there are other kinds of harm which any society should not allow and against which it should adopt protective or remedial measures to the best of its ability."' Which is which becomes the problem.

The process of reasoning whereby safety policy decisions are made ought to he dictated-not by risk avoidance, an impossible ideal-but by comprehensive risk/ risk assessments and cost/risk/benefit ratios. When these comparisons make it clear that a point of diminishing returns on allocations of money, time and effort has been reached by comparison with other potential hazards in a society, then the particular product or process or facility under scrutiny is "safe enough." If indeed unintended and unwanted harm should occur despite carefully wrought safety-policy decisions, then such harm can be judged "justifiable" because unavoidable and negligible by comparison with other greater harms and essential benefits.

If policy makers were more circumspect about this process of reasoning, there might also be greater clarity about a disputed "threshold concept" in setting radiation protection standards.

Because of increasingly sophisticated measurements in radiobiology, specialists are capable of identifying and extrapolating from even minute effects of exposure to radiation. But it is a qualitatively distinct cognitive leap to make the value judgment that a zero-threshold for so-called "safe" radiation exposure ought to he written into regulatory standards. Certain radiobiologists and biostatisticians have sought scientific data that has then enabled them to make such a value judgment. Excessively conservative scientific judgments about putative effects from radiation exposure, however, cannot and ought not to be substituted for an ethically responsible value judgment about "safety." For the policy maker, a practical threshold concept cannot he evaded' There can and must be a practical threshold below which the possibility of comparatively insignificant unintended and unwanted harm becomes ethically justifiable. This justification derives from a reasoning process which concludes that such effects are unavoidable and negligible by comparison with other greater radiation exposures both naturally occurring and applied by human technology-and with other potential hazards against which citizens ought to be protected first and foremost.

Those responsible in society for providing basic goods, methods of informed consent, and an equitable management of biohazards have an ethical obligation to derive value judgments of safety, acceptable risk, and justifiable harm from a philosophy of congruence with a pattern of benefits and harms already established by naturally occurring radiation sources with which human beings have lived and evolved throughout recorded history. That is to say, the philosophy of congruence and logical consistency require a policy maker to form value judgments by first taking account of wide variations in personal exposures and population exposure from naturally occurring background sources.

External sources of exposure include cosmic rays, together with the radionuclides they produce, and, primordial radionuclides in the earth. Variations in natural exposure to thorium in monazite sands along the southeastern coast of India range from 130 mrem to 2,800 mrem; while on the coast of Brazil, exposure ranges from 90 to 2,800 mrem with an average of 550 mrem per year. There is no scientifically established evidence, despite contrived attempts to prove it, that there are basic harms to those so exposed.

Human tolerance for, indeed dependence upon, such wide variations in natural radiation sources for several millenia demonstrate that increments from man-made applications of those natural sources can be kept well within the range of those variations without inflicting unjustifiable harm or deprivation of basic goods.

A Bioethical Principle

In view of these reflections, I suggest that the following bioethical principle might better serve as guidance in the formulation of social policies for protecting the health and safety of present and future generations, and for choosing among current options for waste disposal facilities:

Any involuntary risks imposed by social policies for radiation protection must be congruent with, must not be in excess of, and may be reasonably less than, those involuntary risks imposed by the wide variations in naturally occurring toxic elements and harmful effects from our natural environment.

For more than a decade we have been bombarded with "the carcinogen of the week." Because of the media exploitation of the major obstacle to nuclear electricity, waste disposal, we now seem to be entering a protracted period in which we can expect to be bombarded with the "low-level radiation source of the week." We seem bent on becoming a nation of hypochondriacs. We would therefore do well to ponder Max Singer's remarks:

Safety is one of the reasons it is better to be wealthy than poor. But as we get wealthier and safer, we become more concerned about safety ... Like most social problems, the death toll from hazards requires a complex, balanced, and limited response. We cannot give ourselves up to eliminating or even reducing hazards. As individuals and as a society we most not become cowardly, fearful or hypochondriacal. The weakening of our character can do us more harm than all the auto accidents and all the fire.9


1Alvin Weinberg, "Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy," Science, 177 (6/7/72)
2 P. L. Berger, "Ethics and the Present Class Struggle," Worldview (4/20/ 78) 6'lt. L. King, "Nuclear Power in Crisis: The New Class Assault," Energy Daily, 6/135 (7/14/78); and C. W. Pickering, "Science and Society in the 70's: The Making of a New Agenda, or If it's Not the Technology, What the Hell Is It?" Proceedings of the Sixth Life Sciences Symposium, Los Alamos, New Mexico, 9/1978 (in press)
3 I. C. Bupp and J. C. Deriao, Light Water: How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved (New York: Basic Books, 1978). A. B. Lovins, Soft Energy Paths: Toward A Durable Peace (Cambridge, Mass: Ballioger, 1977)
4B. L. Cohen, "The Disposal of Radioactive Wastes from Fission Reactors," Scientific American, 236 (June 1977) C. de Marsily et al., "Nuclear Waste Disposal: Can the Geologist Guarantee Isolations?" Science, 197 (August 1977( Report to the American Physical Society by the Study Group on Fuel Cycles and Waste Management, Review of Modern Physics, 50, Part II, (Jan. 1978) Handling of Spent Nuclear Fuel and Final Storage of Vitrified High Level Reprocessing Waste, KBS Report, Kam-Bransle-Sakerhet, Stockholm, Sweden, (December, 1977)
5J. J. Cohen, "Statement to the Interagency Review Croup on Nuclear Waste Management," San Francisco Public Hearings, (7/21/78)
6D. Rotow, and '1'. Cochrao, "Radioactive Waste Management Criteria,"
Prepared for U.S. Department of Energy, Contract ER-78-C-0 1-6596,
5 January 1979. 0. Rotow, T. Cochran, A. Tamplio, "NRDC Comoments on Criteria for Radioactive Waste Proposed by the Environmental Protective Agency," Federal Register. Vol. 43, #221, (15 Nov. 1978) Issued 5 January 1979
7Ceorgius Agrieola, Dc Re Metallica, 1556, Trans by Herbert and Lou Hoover. Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1950.
8C. W. Pickering, "Energy and Well-being: Whose?" Proceedings of Energy: The Ethical Issues, Springfield, Ohio. Ohio Institute for Appropriate Technology (12/9/78)