Cleaning up the legacy
: reassessing intergenerational justice in the context of nuclear decommissioning operations in the UK

  • Rika Hirose

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


There are over 150 nuclear power reactors in a state of shut down worldwide. Only 19 in three countries have, however, completed the decommissioning process. Decommissioning of a nuclear power plant is a complex and expensive operation, which takes decades to complete. The management of waste after the completion is another ongoing issue, and there is no authorised facility established yet to store the accumulating waste, which will remain toxic for thousands of years. Due to our collective lack of experience in decommissioning, it is difficult to estimate the work needed in both technical and financial terms. Lessons are still to be learned and unprecedented efforts are needed to minimise the environmental and financial burden imposed upon future generations.

With more than 200 reactors expected to end their lives in the next two decades, conscientious commitment is required not only from today’s society, but also from future generations, to contain the radioactive material safely. While the responsibilities and burdens imposed upon future generations are unknown, decommissioning is a “clean-up job” that does not produce any material product or monetary profit. Non-financial motivational factors are needed, and ethical concerns, or notions of justice, could be instrumental.

This study identifies the motivational factors needed to pursue nuclear decommissioning in a fair and sustainable manner. Grounded in a constructivist paradigm, a qualitative approach was employed. Following a review of relevant literature on the history of nuclear industry, as well as conceptualisation and application of justice in the modern society, 24 semi-structured interviews were conducted to understand what nuclear decommissioning operations mean to stakeholders. In the context of a comparative case-study, two prominent decommissioning sites in the UK, namely, Dounreay and Bradwell, were selected as places of research. The respondents include policy makers and site workers, as well as academics and activists.

In addition to general understanding that the financial aspect of nuclear decommissioning is the key issue to be tackled, empirical findings indicate the importance of non-financial, intergenerational justice considerations to pursue decommissioning in a fair and sustainable manner. However, the notion of justice is vulnerable to manipulation to benefit interested parties that wield more power than others and existing justice framework must be contested. Based on insights gained from the research, policy and practice implications are suggested, in hope that they may expand the existing understanding of decommissioning operations and help to reinforce the commitment and drive for generations to come.
Date of Award29 Jul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorDarren McCauley (Supervisor)

Access Status

  • Full text open

Cite this