Economics serving society

Nuclear waste storage and environmental intergenerational externalities

Mouez Fodha

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Several countries have chosen nuclear energy for their electricity production, thereby guaranteeing a certain independence in energy, without loss of competitiveness, with an apparently limited risk for the climate. This choice implies a responsibility of present generations with regard to future generations because it produces a legacy of waste that is radioactive for thousands of years. Currently, the main ways to treat this waste include surface storage and burial, deep in geological formations. At the surface, it is the current generations that will bear any damage occurring in storage centres. In the case of deep burial, it will be future generations, since this waste will disappear for several thousand years but will reappear, whether through deliberate or accidental disinterment. Thus, choosing deep burial brings us back to the NIMBY principal, but in a temporal rather than spatial sense. According to what principles should regulators make the decision? How to choose between surface storage and deep burial?
In order to determine the optimal quantity of waste to bury, Fodha here considers a theoretical analysis inspired by overlapping generations models. These have been used in numerous works on environmental intergenerational externalities and sustainable development. First of all, Fodha shows that it may be optimal for regulators to bury all radioactive waste. Indeed, the longer the temporal horizon for deep burial, the more the perception of it creating a serious future risk diminishes. He also shows that stable and regular (i.e. non-chaotic) economic growth guarantees capacity to impose order on nuclear waste. In reality, this condition of growth imposes limits on the rate of burial of such waste. Indeed, deep burial of all nuclear waste would first pose a major risk in case of damage (accidental release or leaks from burial centres, for example): savings and therefore productive capital diminishes in the short term, which leads to economic slow-down. In addition, the financing of a total deep burial policy would represent a cost so heavy that is too would come to compromise economic growth.
(1) Not In My Backyard
Original title of the academic article : “Nuclear waste storage and environmental intergenerational externalities”
Published in: International Journal of Sustainable Development, 2015 Vol. 18 No. 1/2
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