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The Unfairness Of Yucca Mountain

The proposal for a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain is back in the news, as the Department of Energy moves forward with plans, people turn their attention to nuclear power as an alternative to increasingly expensive oil, and a proposal to make Nevada the second contest of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary gains steam. I don't have a strong view about the substantive merits of centralized versus dispersed storage of nuclear waste, or the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site on engineering grounds. What I do have an opinion on is whether the current approach to establishing a centralized repository at that site is a good one.

To some degree, the dispute over Yucca Mountain is a technical dispute over what the real level of risk is. But it also goes deeper, so that purely technical debate about milirems and geological stability will not resolve the issue. The deeper dispute arises from the fact that there are two ways of looking at what makes a risk acceptable, which I'll call the "economic paradigm" and the "social paradigm." Each paradigm can be treated as a descriptive theory (how actual people actually do think about risks) or as a normative theory (how people should think about risks).

The economic paradigm says that the acceptability of a risk is entirely a function of its (percieved) level of harm. In this way of thinking there are some levels of risk that are de minimis -- so unlikely, and/or of such small magnitude, that they effectively don't count. For risks above the de minimis level, we can apply some sort of cost-benefit criterion, so that for a given level of benefit, we would put up with a certain level of risk. There is much room for debate about how the de minimis level and the exchange rate between risks and benefits should be

Proponents of Yucca Mountain typically work within the economic paradigm. Their primary arguments focus on establishing that the harms from the waste repository fall below the de minimis level. Secondarily, they point to benenfits -- either to society at large, or specifically to those who will bear the risk -- that outweigh the risk.

The social paradigm doesn't deny that the level of harm plays a role in shaping risk acceptability. But it points out that social factors -- the why and how of imposing and mitigating risks -- can play as large, or even larger, of a role. An unfair risk can be just as unacceptable as a harmful risk. Research on risk perception consistently shows that if a risk is imposed through a democratic, participatory process in which the affected people have a say, people will accept a certain level of risk -- but the same risky project would be greeted with insatiable howls of outrage if it was implemented through the "DAD" ("Decide, Announce, Defend") approach. Think, as an analogy, of the way you might be angry if your housemate just went and used some of your milk, even though you would gladly have given them that same milk if they had asked permission first.

Opponents of Yucca Mountain are thinking in the social paradigm. In one sense, putting all of the country's waste in one state seems intrinsically unfair -- why should Nevadans have to bear the risks (however small they may be) for the rest of the country's energy choices? This prima facie distributional unfairness can, however, be overcome through a properly democratic approach to decision-making. If the people of Nevada were to feel that they had been given a real say in how the nation's nuclear waste would be handled, and that Yucca Mountain was not a foregone conclusion, they would be much more likely to support Yucca Mountain. And if they still said "no thanks," such a participatory process would be able to identify a solution that would be acceptable to whoever ended up living next to the waste. (There is an excellent case study of how this all can work out based on a landfill siting process in Canton Aargau, Switzerland*.) Further, there are concerns about politically motivated intervention in the supposedly benevolent dictatorship of the bureaucrats and scientists who chose the current plan -- notably Congress's 1987 order to the DOE to only consider the feasibility of Yucca Mountain.

Because the prevailing institutions accept only economic-paradigm arguments, people who oppose risks for social reasons will often have to recast their arguments in economic terms, creating a frustrating proxy battle. But social-paradigmers' larger assessments of the harms are not just a strategic move -- there's understandable spillover between knowledge of the fairness of a process, and skepticism about the data on the harms. There's enough uncertainty in technical risk assessment that it's quite reasonable to be concerned that if someone is proposing to impose a risk in an unfair way, they may have (consciously or unconsciously) resolved those uncertainties in ways that make the outcome more favorable to them, and hence unfavorable to the people who will have to directly bear the risk.

So to try to defend the project with strictly economic paradigm arguments miss the point. Even if you believe that the economic paradigm is normatively correct, your arguments will fall on deaf ears unless you can either win Nevadans over to that paradigm first, or satisfy their fairness concerns. Resolving the question of fairness is critical. At sites across the country, nuclear waste sits in temporary storage, produced over the past few decades pursuant to the DOE's now-broken promise that it would find an acceptable place to permanently store it.

* Full disclosure: One of the authors, Tom Webler, is one of my bosses on a different research project.


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