Our most enduring legacy to future generations will be the radioactive materials generated over the last fifty years by nuclear power and weapons production, including structures and equipment contaminated at every step of the fuel cycle as well as all categories of waste. The toxicity of these materials, with their proven capacity to cause cancers, immune disease, birth disorders, and genetic mutation, constitutes an unprecedented and monumental assault on organic life. To safeguard ourselves and future generations, all these contaminants must be kept out of the biosphere now and for thousands of years.
We who are living now, whether "pro-nuclear" or "anti-nuclear," need to consider together how we are to isolate the radioactive materials we have produced. We need to consider our responsibility for their ongoing containment, and the immediate steps this guardianship requires of us.
We have no public policy at present for the long-term safeguarding of these highly contaminating materials. The approach of government and industry is to dispose of nuclear waste, putting it "out of sight--out of mind" in remote, shallow dump sites or deep geological depositories. These plans ignore the fact that no container lasts as long as the radioactivity it contains, and that when containers eventually leak, radioactivity will migrate through movements of rock, water, and wind. Current plans, whether for dumping of "low-level" wastes or interim storage of high-level wastes, also involve extensive, costly, and dangerous transportation. No plans are in force for permanently isolating reactors, weapons facilities, and other structures, which are both contaminated and contaminating. Publicly, we seem to have little concern about protecting present and future generations from nuclear contamination.
Among groups and individuals, however, such concern is growing. More and more scientists and citizens question the effectiveness and ethics of so-called disposal. Many view permanent ground-level storage of radioactive materials as a more responsible alternative, because it permits access for monitoring and repair. And, where environmentally permissible, on-site storage, at points of origin, would minimize dangerous transportation and contamination of new areas. This is a guardianship approach, allowing long-term responsible care of our nuclear legacy. It challenges us to consider together, not only the most appropriate technologies, but also how to ensure local citizen oversight and how to develop institutions and practices by which future generations can continue to keep radioactive materials out of the biosphere.
To facilitate an in-depth conversation on this vital concern, the Nuclear Guardianship Forum is launched as an occasional publication. It grows out of the Nuclear Guardianship Project, a citizen effort to come to grips with the moral, political, and technical challenge posed by the radioactive materials our generation has produced.
You are invited to join this conversation, addressing such questions as these:
- What are the rights of future generations to be protected and to be able to protect themselves from the radioactivity we bequeath them?
- What are the rights and responsibilities of present-day citizens to be informed about and to exert democratic control over the radioactive materials in their localities?
- What do present and future generations need to know about the source and nature of these radioactive materials?
- What are the moral implications of continued production of nuclear materials in the light of their enormous toxicity and our inability to safeguard them?
- In order to minimize the dangers of transportation, and the contamination of new sites, to what extent can radioactive materials be stored long-term at their points of origin?
- What cultural institutions and practices do we need to develop to inform and guide future generations in keeping radioactive materials out of the biosphere? How could these survive social, political, economic changes?
- What can anthropologists, artists, linguists, psychologists, and educators contribute to the development of such institutions and practices?
- What resources for nuclear guardianship can we find in the spiritual traditions of our planet?
- What should be conveyed in our schools about our nuclear legacy and the responsibility it entails? What learning materials and methods are useful and easily replicable?
- What can we learn from present-day nuclear "guardians"--be they managers of facilities, clean-up crews, or citizen monitoring and watchdog groups--that is relevant to long- term care of radioactive materials.
- In understanding the task before us, what can be learned from the expenence of populations now suffering from nuclear contamination?
- To what extent are current technologies of vitrification and transmutation operationally and economically feasible in relation to the existing volumes of radioactive matenals?
- How can materials in monitorable, ground-level storage be protected from human violence, climatic, and geologic events?
- How can we foster self-respect and responsibility regarding radioactive materials?