Decisions on industry affect future generations

Bob McKeon


December 21, 2009

Recently I was asked to speak on a panel addressing the issue of introducing nuclear power to Alberta. The organizers wanted someone from the Catholic Archdiocese on the panel to speak from the perspective of the Pastoral Reflections on Nuclear Energy statement issued by the Alberta Catholic bishops in June.

This was a challenging task, because the other panelists and most of the audience wanted to advance and debate their strongly held pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear positions.

My task was different.

My job was to explore some of the ethical questions that needed to be addressed in taking a position on this difficult issue.

I raised the issue of "intergenerational justice," asking what is the effect of this decision on future generations? One of the pro-nuclear panel members affirmed the validity of this concern in the nuclear power debate, but insisted that it would only be fair to ask the same question about other energy developments such as the Athabasca oil sands and Alberta's coal fired power plants.

For many Albertans, including Catholics, "intergenerational justice" is an unfamiliar phrase. Yet, in recent statements from the Vatican and from our bishops in Alberta, the phrase "intergenerational justice" is appearing with increasing frequency.


The Alberta bishops in their statement Celebrate Life: Care for Creation challenged us to expand our Christian ethical vision "to include an intergenerational ethic where the needs of future generations are included in present day decisions."

Parents and grandparents instinctively plan for the future of their children and grandchildren. This is part of a personal ethical vision that crosses generations. However, intergenerational justice must also be part of our social ethic including the social, economic and political decisions that we make in society.

Pope Benedict in his recent social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, addresses this issue when he calls upon "competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations."

This ethical concern for future generations has direct relevance with respect to the construction and operation of nuclear power plants in Alberta. One generation will get the benefit of the electricity generated by the nuclear plant, while future generations assume the legacy of the radioactive wastes.

Nuclear wastes remain toxic for tens of thousands of years into the future. There are no facilities in place in Canada today for the permanent storage and safe containment of nuclear wastes, and it is most unlikely that such facilities will be constructed and operational for many decades into the future.

Future generations will be required to spend whatever it takes to safely contain and manage these toxic wastes in order to preserve their own health and well being.

In recent years, governments are increasingly requiring corporations involved in major resource projects with significant environmental risks to contribute funds to an environmental reclamation fund to assist future generations in the environmental cleanup.


But often these funds are not enough. There are numerous examples of abandoned oil, gas and mining projects in Western and Northern Canada where the corporations who ran these projects are long gone and taxpayers of a later generation are paying substantial cleanup bills.

The major question facing the Alberta government may not be so much whether to say yes or no to the introduction of nuclear power into our province, but rather to determine what conditions must be met before construction of nuclear power plants is allowed to proceed. Meeting the requirements of an intergenerational ethic will be an important part of this determination.

However, my fellow panelist's question about directing the concern of an intergenerational ethic to other forms of energy is important.

This is a major ethical concern underlying the difficult debates at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

A minority of the world's population living in wealthy nations have benefited greatly through industrialization made possible by the combustion of relatively inexpensive fossil fuels.


The greatest environmental harms from the increase of greenhouse gases associated with the combustion of fossil fuels are being disproportionately experienced today by people living in the poorest nations. The failure to achieve a meaningful international climate change agreement soon will pass a rapidly increasing burden on to the next generation.

The concern of an intergenerational ethic is especially important for us who live in Alberta. Concern for future generations was an important part of Bishop Luc Bouchard's moral critique of the development of the Athabasca oil sands.

We need to heed the call of the Alberta bishops to expand our ethical vision as we make decisions in our personal and family lives, our communities, churches, businesses and governments.

(Bob McKeon: