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5.2.8 Societal and ethical challenges relating to long term stewardship

Contents
5.2.8.1 Stakeholder involvement; partnership building and purpose
5.2.8.2 Communicating the nature of the risk and stewardship
5.2.8.3 Defining societal criteria for defining and implementing stewardship strategies
5.2.8.4 Managing ethical questions

The societal aspects of long term stewardship may present several important challenges, such as building trust, communicating the nature of the risks and of the remediation and stewardship options, reconciling economic, management and technical issues with considerations of public values and beliefs, resolving ethical questions and engaging stakeholders in the decision making process, and thereafter retaining stakeholder commitment [Wright].

5.2.8.1 Stakeholder involvement; partnership building and purpose

Stakeholder involvement in the decision making process on long term management strategies has gained importance in many countries. One of the key elements in stakeholder involvement is the provision of and the use of information as a basis for decision making. Decisions in question may range from initial choices of remediation and stewardship strategy, to all the related issues of financial resource management, record keeping and management, and monitoring to assess the requirements for stewardship or intervention as time goes on.

Contaminated site stewardship decisions may involve complex judgements about how people (a community) will live with, cope with or get along with inconveniences and risks that have their origins in the past. In some cases of major misfortunes or accidents, the people most directly concerned, or their descendants may live with memories, scars and the pain of things lost, and must confront the uncertainties of building a new life. Public policy in such situations must contribute to repairing, revitalising and rebuilding communities. What are the human factors that permit people, in the face of economic loss, environmental adversity, damage to their health or other misfortunes, to recover and again become purposeful and enthused in their efforts in society?

These challenges of partnership building and (sometimes) rebuilding will be important even when – as with the majority of mining and industrial exploitation activities – site stewardship is not associated with past accidents or traumas. First, there may be the requirements of memory associated with the requirements of monitoring and eventual intervention at different types of contaminated sites whose risks extend decades, centuries or, in some cases, even millennia into the future. Second, there may be the problem of community and partnership building in the face of adversity. This may be partly an economic resources problem but it is also a cultural and political problem of purposes and meanings.

5.2.8.2 Communicating the nature of the risk and stewardship

Contaminated sites are socially constructed risks. As in the case of most socially mediated risks, the significance – and hence the acceptability – to an individual, to members of a community or to a society, of exposure (or a danger of exposure) to a dose, depends on how, by whom and why the dose has been produced. Correspondingly, in order to assess to what extent or on what basis the members of a society will judge acceptable or trust (or not) a given strategy for the management of high level long-lived radioactive residues, it is necessary also to consider the meanings and relationships (in social, economic, cultural and symbolic terms) that alternative remediation and stewardship strategies might establish between the people – individuals, classes, interest groups, succeeding generations and whole nations – implicated in the site stewardship process.

Trust may be characterised as the willingness of a person, group or community to make themselves vulnerable in the expectation (or hope) of a benefit coming from association with others that would not otherwise be forthcoming [Wright]. The conditions of trust in government, as in a commercial enterprise, as in scientific and technological advances more generally, all relate, on the one hand, to hopes of benefits and, on the other hand, to confidence in the capacity and will of society leaders and innovators, and other potential partners, to ensure the sharing of those benefits. Successful stewardship, like successful diplomacy, will arise from effective dialogue leading to confidence in the prospects for a worthwhile common future.

The ‘appropriation’ of a problem by local stakeholders, and their identification of a concept for a solution that is acceptable to them, may be among the key ingredients for the economic, social and political viability of a solution. Equally necessary is the engagement of the relevant national authorities, establishing a political and economic partnership that will unite the complementary local and national resources and forms of authority. From a societal point of view, this suggests the identification of three key components for a viable solution to a contaminated site stewardship problem:

  1. Technical and scientific expertise: the development, application and maintenance of scientific knowledge and technical competence to measure and to control the present and eventual exposure of living beings to radioactivity.
  2. Building social/societal relationships with the site: the envisaging and invention, in social and symbolic terms, of how the relevant community (or communities) will relate to and interact with the sites, the risks, the residues and the records.
  3. Political and economic partnership: a means to permit mobilisation of the relevant knowledge and resources for the implementation of an agreed societal strategy for stewardship.

5.2.8.3 Defining societal criteria for defining and implementing stewardship strategies

The second and third of the above components (see Section 5.2.8.2) underlie in various ways operational considerations such as management, economics and financing, and records and information systems. The societal components are also interdependent with the effectiveness of technical and scientific expertise. The building and maintenance of the necessary political and economic partnerships depend basically on the relationships that the different stakeholders develop and maintain among each other and with the site. Without these ongoing partnerships, the relevant knowledge for stewardship will not be mobilised or renewed, and the motivation for long term engagement will be fragile. Therefore, it is important to consider stakeholder participation for designing the stewardship solution, or for formulating and evaluating options, as well as for roles in the operational stages. No individual or institution holds a complete knowledge base for ‘what should be done’. The participation of stakeholders is necessary for the mobilisation of existing wisdom and purposefulness, and for the regular renewal of this.

Radiology science and engineering should address the ways and means of controlling the exposure of present and future generations to radiation, relative to what is considered safe or otherwise satisfactory. Technical expertise (drawing on various aspects of physics and chemistry, biology, epidemiology, etc.) plays a crucial role in determining what should be considered a safe level of exposure and on the effectiveness of different engineering and institutional strategies for the present and possible future levels of exposure associated with a site. However, technical expertise, on its own, cannot answer the societal question of what should be done.

In a situation where there is a consensus that the enduring presence of hazardous wastes is troublesome and requires a societal response, but, precisely because this potential risk is not easily forgotten, a solution that inspires confidence should engage a permanent process of vigilance in which concerned stakeholders are directly involved. This may involve stewardship procedures whereby an economically active community, in partnership with overall regulatory authorities, is living close to (or even within) and maintaining a watch over the site. This is an example of a social (rather than a technical) criterion for acceptability.

Generalising from this example, a set of questions might be useful for identifying broad social criteria for the acceptability of stewardship strategies proposed for a given site. The questions should be formulated in descriptive language, considering the current situation or features of the proposed solution. As a function of circumstance, and of stakeholder point of view, these questions may be modified with normative or prescriptive language, i.e., to function as criteria for acceptability, as suggested in italics:

  1. Is there official recognition of a waste, residual risk or contamination problem at the site? (Should there be official recognition of a waste, residual risk or contamination problem?)
  2. If yes, is there, or is there planned to be, active stewardship of the site? (Should there be active stewardship of the site?)
  3. Is there, or is there planned to be, an ongoing public interaction with the site as a dimension of the stewardship process? (Should there be an ongoing public interaction with the site?)
  4. If yes, is the ‘historical liability’ made a feature of the site’s new public identity or use? (Should the historical liability be made into a feature of the site’s new identity and use?)
  5. If yes, what types of activity are mainly associated with the contamination features, for example, activities for the public good such as education, training and research, or private benefit activities such as recreation and tourism? (What types of activities should be associated with the contamination or waste features?)
  6. What type of socio-economic status and prestige should be accorded to the stewardship process? (What type of socio-economic profile, prestige or importance should be associated with the stewardship process?)

Examples of stewardship concepts that may emerge from different sequences or combinations of ‘Yes’/ ‘No’ answers to the above questions may be:

  1. The response to the first question might be ‘No’, with an ongoing controversy about whether or not there is a significant danger associated with a site.
  2. The sequence ‘Yes’ to the first question, ‘No’ to the second question would imply identification of an ‘orphan’ site, and therefore lead to the question of the acceptability of this orphan status.
  3. The sequence ‘Yes’ to the first question, ‘Yes’ to the second question, ‘No’ to the third question would lead to concepts of a segregated or isolated site, with restricted access. Appropriate analogies might be a dangerous natural site, a rubbish dump, a warehouse for storing dangerous goods, a mausoleum or a nursing home. Answers to question six would permit a characterisation of the socio-economic status of the stewardship activity for the site.
  4. The sequence ‘Yes’ to the first question, ‘Yes’ to the second question, ‘Yes’ to the third question, ‘No’ to the fourth question would lead to suggestions for ‘ordinary’ uses of the site, for example, industrial or forestry production, or recreational activities (such as a golf course) that do not in any way rely on or ‘exploit’ the stewardship status of the site. These activities will, however, be under regulatory control, and answers to question five and question six would highlight whether or not a stigma is associated with the site.
  5. The sequence ‘Yes’ to the first question, ‘Yes’ to the second question, ‘Yes’ to the third question, ‘Yes’ to the fourth question would lead, by contrast, to suggestions for uses of the site that specifically rely on or ‘exploit’ the historical liability as a distinctive feature of the site. This could include ordinary commercial uses of the site, such as tourist and recreational activities, and ones that specifically make use of the identity of the site or installations such as shrines or temples, museums and educational facilities.

The purpose of this typology process is to highlight the qualitative range of different models that can be, and have been, envisaged for stewardship of contaminated sites. Each category of solution has its appropriate analogies and metaphors, and thus highlights different aspects of social life, different types of prestige and status, different communities or different relationships. Specific technical, financial, management, record keeping, monitoring and communication procedures must all be framed with recognition of these qualitative societal and institutional choices.

Suppose, for example, that there are jobs attached to the long term site stewardship activity and salaries to be paid. In what terms will the job of site wardens be advertised? Who will be recruited (the question of job opportunities for locals)? What types of skill will be required? What will the salary scale be? What will be the relation of the site wardens to others in the local community (if there is a local community), and the perception of their role by the rest of society?

  1. In the context of high level radioactive waste disposal, variations of the shrine/temple concept have been offered for some years by many commentators. The concept has appeal partly because it evokes the ‘eternal’ character of the guardianship task. It might also have appeal because, by the establishment of a high prestige guardian task, the stewardship roles could offer reasonable prospects for highly trained nuclear engineers. Generation after generation of guardians could be imagined, each generation handing down, by algorithm, ceremony and song, a unique competence to those that follow, maintaining an eternal vigil.
  2. The contrasting nursing home concept brings a quite different set of connotations: patience, compassion, meticulous care, weariness, perhaps even mourning, anger and sadness with the pain of a long condemnation to watch over the ageing residents of the nursing home.
  3. The theme park option brings once again a distinct set of job profiles and social relations.

5.2.8.4 Managing ethical questions

The prime objectives for remediation actions are the abatement of actual health risks and environmental impacts and the reduction of risks to human and other receptors in the longer term. Site stewardship is a prolongation of these goals [Wright].

In recent years, a key reference point has been adherence to sustainability principles. Sustainable development seeks to reconcile present day needs with the requirements of future generations. Other definitions of sustainability put to the fore the maintenance of biosphere life support systems, species diversity, economic justice between developed and developing nations, political self-determination, and tolerance of diversity in cultural and political conventions.

However, application of sustainability principles is not always straightforward. The management of long term radiological liabilities is associated with scientific uncertainties and also with moral, political and economic dilemmas. What principles should be applied to the distribution of inconveniences and risks that are the ‘downstream’ legacy of benefits gained? What is, and what should be, our attitude about the possibly adverse consequences imposed on others (elsewhere or in the future) by present day production and consumption decisions?

Some sectors of the public may effectively demand a reduction to zero impact and zero risk. This is in contrast to the fact that society in general has received benefits from the site activities resulting in these impacts and risks. Perceptions, however, may be shaped by the fact that the groups of society affected are not necessarily identical to those receiving the benefits. It may be pointed out that in almost all cases the demand for zero impact and zero risk will only result in a transfer of risk from one community to another. For instance, removal of radioactive residues to an engineered repository off-site will result in a net reduction of risk, but at the same time move the risk from one community to another.

The acceptability of residual risks is in general a function of a wide variety of sociological, economic and political factors. It may vary over time for individuals or certain groups of individuals. The acceptability typically evolves, among others, as a balance between the perceived risk and the actual inconvenience imposed by institutional control measures. Inconvenience here is understood to encompass, for example, the restrictions on site use imposed. The higher the perceived risk, the more acceptable become institutional controls.

What does the current generation owe future generations in terms of the legacy wastes from nuclear materials and weapons production? One answer is nothing, arguing that future generations are likely to have more knowledge and capability than exists now, and will be quite able to look after themselves, so that attempts at help from the current generation would be considered, from a far vantage point, as merely quaint. However, it is advisable if possible to prevent their stumbling, through ignorance or accident, on what may be harmful to them.

It is undesirable to leave unresolved problems for future generations, although it is also undesirable to deprive future generations of certain options because of actions taken by the present generation. Some moral philosophers, however, claim that this argument would quickly lead to a justification of no action being taken by the current generation on many issues, and that pre-emption of future options is acceptable ethically, provided that the current action is well motivated and reasonable in the light of current knowledge.

An example of these dilemmas is the controversy about the principle of precaution as a guideline in regulatory policy. The spectrum of attitudes within our societies towards technological progress can be highlighted by two contrasting positions around the question of the ‘burden of proof’ associated with innovations or engineering exercises whose outcomes are uncertain. Those evoking the traditional discourses of progress will argue that ‘the future can look after itself’. Those evoking a precautionary attitude will argue that absence of proof of danger is not the same as proof of absence of danger and that, where great uncertainty and possibly grave dangers reside, risks should not be taken. In the Rio Declaration, for instance, it is stated that: ‘Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental degradation’ [Wright].

This precautionary principle can be justified by a variety of arguments in terms of duty or responsibility, respect or esteem for others (notably future generations) as members of an extended community [Wright]. The idea is that actions carrying a possible (but as yet undemonstrated) risk of serious and long lasting damage to future human interests should not be permitted. It is clear that the principle is founded on specific ethical considerations that gain force where science and technological progress are no longer regarded as ordinarily beneficial and where outcomes cannot be determined fully (or at all) in advance, i.e., where powerful forces of natural and technological change are being engaged under conditions of inability to exercise mastery over eventual outcomes.

How far should the precautionary attitude be taken? Answers to such questions hinge on notions of responsibility, including the definition of intergenerational equity. The controversy around precaution as a principle for orientating social choices thus highlights the dilemmas of action and decision in risky domains. It is interesting to note the peculiarity of the ethical notions of holding ourselves responsible for the detriments caused by past generations, relative to the ethical premises that have guided industrial and scientific developments in the past. It may also be affirmed that, despite some inconveniences from contamination and long-lived wastes, future generations will nonetheless enjoy accumulated benefits from previous generations. It can therefore be argued that each generation should also carry some of the burden incurred by their predecessors. Hence, we could ask ourselves, whether we really need to find ‘permanent’ solutions, or whether we should not be able to leave some legacy to future generations, as these will profit from our technological developments.

The definition of what constitutes a residual risk is subject to scientific developments and subsequent changes in regulatory systems. A stewardship programme may need to have provisions for accommodating such changes in the regulatory system. While the legal framework usually ensures that the criteria do not change, the regulator may deem it necessary to reassess risks. Such reassessment may result in changes to the institutional control measures that in turn require changes in the stewardship arrangements. A mechanism should be available to furnish (additional) resources.

Engineering interventions within complex systems cannot overcome all risks and cannot avoid contributing to uncertainties that have been called virtual or hypothetical risks, i.e., conceivable (and undesirable) outcomes characterised by complex causation networks, time lags and severity of impacts (e.g., a nuclear meltdown or a toxic waste containment system failure caused by an earthquake), whose investigation by any kind of laboratory testing is logically impossible or involves costs that are prohibitive. These ‘virtual’ risks are often unproven – or un-quantified – until they materialise, but at that point they cannot be managed – they may be accommodated in various ways, but only at significant economic and social costs. For those upon whom the misfortune falls, the perceived uneven, unfair and un-negotiated imposition of disadvantages, damage and burdens (including future clean-up costs or enduring health problems) is likely to be resented and un-forgiven – and hence of much greater social and political weight than any notion of a net benefit to society.

There are also risks of an essentially human character. One example is the potential that if significant concentrations of contamination are left in the ground at any particular site, the extraction of such material could prove to be an enticement for extremists wishing to create chaos or terror in the world. This type of material, while not in a suitable form to construct nuclear weapons, may nonetheless in theory be used to make so-called dirty bombs or similar devices. It is therefore important to ensure that any stewardship programme takes the security question into consideration. A similar issue will clearly be prevalent for radioactive waste disposal sites.

These scientific, moral and political dilemmas cannot be eliminated; decision making and stewardship must accept them. What remains is that it is the responsibility of the present generation’s policy makers and articulate members of the public to affirm, by proxy, the ‘entitlements’ (if any) of, for example, future generations, vulnerable persons, endangered species and ecosystems. In effect, provision for the needs of future generations (as for all other forms of diversity) can be assured only through generous choices of resource use (investment and protection decisions) with the intent to maintain and enhance the opportunities and environmental security of others, including future generations.
Stewardship is a commitment towards future generations that is given practical effect through communal and political choices for the investment of time, labour and economic resources in environmental remediation and monitoring. The stewardship activity is thus interwoven with many other features of economic life, including:

  1. Investment in infrastructure and durable public assets;
  2. Provision for extensive and ongoing community involvement in decision making processes;
  3. Educational investments aimed at fostering an ethics of care and environmental interest;
  4. Investments in research and technological development intended to furnish understanding, information and practical know-how that may simultaneously enhance the economic opportunities and environmental security of future generations.

In practice, there must be an evaluation of options with reference to multiple criteria. The ethical dimension of management consists, in fact, of the articulation of the different principles that may underlie operational criteria. The spectrum of stewardship strategies may be considered as being, from some perspectives, ethically principled actions, i.e., actions that satisfy or respond to particular criteria of good or sound practice that are suggested by members of the community. For the domain of radioactivity stewardship, current examples of ethical criteria include:

  1. Have the responsibilities of existing parties been appropriately assigned? For example:
    1. Has the principle of national autonomy/responsibility (for countries to take care of their own wastes at the national level) been applied?
    2. Has the principle that ‘the polluter pays’ been applied?
    3. Is due respect shown for local, national and international regulatory conditions?
  2. Have responsibilities towards other parties been adequately addressed in the short term? For example:
    1. Have measures been taken to ensure the health security of workers and the public on or close to the site?
    2. Is there security against attack from external or internal sources of aggression?
  3. Have responsibilities towards other parties been adequately addressed in the longer term? For example:
    1. Has the sustainability principle for intergenerational responsibility (not passing on problems to future generations that cannot be coped with in the present) been applied?
    2. Has some version of the principle of precaution been applied?
    3. Is the necessary knowledge base for competent stewardship stable in the long term?
  4. Have available technical know-how and systems science been used? For example, are standards of best practice (technical reliability, simplicity, etc.) being applied?
  5. Is the solution economically viable? For example:
    1. Are the immediate costs of stewardship affordable with the available resources?
    2. Are there major financial costs postponed to the future?
    3. Are there reasonable prospects of acquiring resources for the forecast stewardship costs in the longer term?
  6. Does the solution enhance the prestige of the host communities or other stakeholder groups closely associated with the residue/waste site?

Each distinct stakeholder group will bring a different balance of pre-conceptions to the evaluation process. The general idea is that a comparative evaluation of the stewardship scenarios should take place from a variety of different points of view corresponding to distinct pre-conceptions. Each stakeholder group may express different criteria of adequacy or quality in relation to each of the governance issues. Where tensions, conflicts of interest, uncertainties and dissent emerge (e.g., among scientists as well as decision makers, administrators and stakeholders from different areas of commercial activity and civil society), these can be documented. The reasons for dissent can then be discussed in a transparent way, which sometimes opens up prospects for consensus or novel strategies.