Articles | Volume 2
Conference Abstract
06 Sep 2023
Conference Abstract |  | 06 Sep 2023

Putting nuclear waste on the sustainability agenda – integration into the concept of planetary boundaries

Fanny Böse and Christian von Hirschhausen

One part of sustainability discussions is the debate about the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth, which was initiated in the year 2009 by a group of scientists led by Johan Rockström, who proposed the concept of “planetary boundaries” (Rockström et al., 2009). The concept defines limits of the ecological carrying capacity based on scientific findings and on the application of the precautionary principle. Since then environmental and sustainability policies have increasingly referred to the concept as a global framework, as done, for example, by the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2012) and the EU's 8th Environmental Action Program, which calls for “a systematic change to a Union economy that ensures well-being within planetary boundaries” (European Parliament and Council of the European Union, 2022, p. 24).

As one of the nine boundaries, climate change requires strong decarbonization and has led to increased investments in low-carbon technologies. Hereby, nuclear power generation gains a new momentum for newly-built reactors as well as lifetime extensions due to its low-emission character required for climate change mitigation (MIT, 2018; Cometto et al., 2022). Furthermore, the EU taxonomy has set nuclear power as a “sustainable” technology classifying it as a “green” investment (JRC, 2021). Although no greenhouse gas emissions are produced during nuclear fission, it produces another form of hazardous and long-lasting waste through spent fuel accumulation. In this sense, human-made nuclear fission is also an anthropogenic impact, which increases the number of instable isotopes representing a persistent threat to humankind and ecosystems.

Although the planetary boundary concept has briefly mentioned radioactive waste as being part of other toxic and human-made waste under the category “novel entities”, it has not been further elaborated since the introduction of the framework (Steffen et al., 2015; Persson et al., 2022). Instead, other forms of human-made waste such as plastics have been analyzed and quantified (Persson et al., 2022).

The aim of the workshop is to discuss the role of radioactive waste management in the context of planetary boundaries from the perspective of the various disciplines of the workshop attendees. Therefore, the concept of planetary boundaries will be introduced and a global perspective on radioactive waste accumulation will be set. In small groups the workshop attendees will work on single aspects, such as reviewing the provided arguments and whether their suitability meets the criteria to establish nuclear waste as a control variable for the novel-entity boundary. The workshop can also include considerations about possible indicators and challenges for quantification as well as address the debate on whether radioactive waste may also become a resource for future generations. Finally, groups will present their results in front of the plenum and discuss the global perspective and its implications for radioactive waste management and challenges for the sustainability discourse in science and policy.

To provide a balanced and interdisciplinary discourse we will invite a few speakers, who will provide input statements, and other experts in the field. It is envisaged to provide a paper with background information and data necessary to discuss radioactive waste as a planetary concept. This preliminary work serves as a basis for discussion for the workshop.


Cometto, M., Contri, P., Gulerce, Z., Lazerwitz, B., Magne, B., Tot, M., Turton, H., and van Heek, A.: Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2022. Securing Clean Energy for Climate Resilience, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria, (last access: 8 August 2023), 2022. 

European Parliament and Council of the European Union: Decision (EU) 2022/591 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 April 2022 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2030, Official Journal of the European Union, 65, ISSN 1977-0677, 2022. 

JRC: Technical assessment of nuclear energy with respect to the “do no significant harm” criteria of Regulation (EU) 2020/852 (“Taxonomy Regulation”), Joint Research Centre, European Commission, Brussels, Belgium, ISBN 978-92-76-40537-5,, 2021. 

MIT: The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA, (last access: 8 August 2023), 2018. 

Persson, L., Carney Almroth, B. M., Collins, C. D., Cornell, S., de Wit, C. A., Diamond, M. L., Fantke, P., Hassellöv, M., MacLeod, M., Ryberg, M. W., Søgaard Jørgensen, P., Villarrubia-Gómez, P., Wang, Z., and Hauschild, M. Z.: Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities, Environ. Sci. Technol., 56, 1510–1521,, 2022.  

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., Lenton, T. M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H. J., Nykvist, B., de Wit, C. A., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S., Rodhe, H., Sörlin, S., Snyder, P. K., Costanza, R., Svedin, U., Falkenmark, M., Karlberg, L., Corell, R. W., Fabry, V. J., Hansen, J., Walker, B., Liverman, D., Richardson, K., Crutzen, P., and Foley, J. A.: A safe operating space for humanity, Nature, 461, 472–475,, 2009. 

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S. R., de Vries, W., de Wit, C. A., Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G. M., Persson, L. M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B., and Sörlin, S.: Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet, Science, 347, 1259855,, 2015. 

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Review of implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles – Synthesis, (last access: 8 August 2023), 2012. 

Short summary
Part of sustainability is the debate about ecological carrying capacity, which was initiated by a group of scientists led by Johan Rockström, who proposed the concept of planetary boundaries. The challenge of climate change requires strong decarbonization and has led to increased investments in low-carbon technologies such as nuclear power. Although no greenhouse gas emissions are produced during fission, hazardous radioactive waste is generated. This burden for our society is underrepresented.