The problem of moral philosophy and intergenerational equity in a potential radioactive waste siting process: An ethical conundrum with a pragmatic solution

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Abstract

The conditioning and long-term management of long-lived radioactive wastes involves isolating materials from the biosphere that can remain potentially harmful for periods of 100,000 years or more: a period of time that far outlasts any known dynasty of humankind so far. The elevated risks to human health and wellbeing are inevitably transferred into the future as a result. With the slow disintegration of the protective shielding of wastes, radio-nuclides can begin to enter the human environment, causing potential harm to the peoples of the future. The transference of risk in this way poses a fundamental ethical conundrum in how to create the 'morally right' strategy that can protect future generations. This paper assesses how theories from moral philosophy can inform the decisions made in implementing a radioactive waste management strategy, by drawing upon conceptual models from: 1. utilitarianism - in discounting the value of future lives 2. rights discourse - in the extension of human rights across generations 3. theories of justice - from John Rawls' theory of 'justice as fairness' 4. the philosophy of logic - in questioning whether future generations can be harmed (or helped!) by the actions of current generations 5. ethical pragmatism - in the search for an 'ethical toolbox', for seeking practicable and publicly acceptable solutions. By outlining the differing approaches proposed by these five philosophical traditions, I will highlight the fundamental tensions lying at the heart of how, in the management of these wastes, we can begin to envisage and plan for the treatment of our future descendants. The paper will propose that the traditional moral frameworks that dominate ethical debates are insufficient in finding an ethically informed and publicly acceptable solution. This is an issue that requires 'bottom-up' empirical investigation using tools to allow stakeholders to engage with and critically assess the moral issues involved and thus generate practical policy solutions, rather than complex and contentious 'top-down' moral theories that present idealized, hypothetical ethical scenarios.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings - 10th International Conference on Environmental Remediation and Radioactive Waste Management, ICEM'05
PublisherAmerican Society of Mechanical Engineers(ASME)
Pages2300-2306
Publication statusPublished - 2005

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    Cotton, M. (2005). The problem of moral philosophy and intergenerational equity in a potential radioactive waste siting process: An ethical conundrum with a pragmatic solution. In Proceedings - 10th International Conference on Environmental Remediation and Radioactive Waste Management, ICEM'05 (pp. 2300-2306). American Society of Mechanical Engineers(ASME).