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Intergenerational Risk Decision Making: A Practical Example

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There is no such thing as intergenerational decision making, at least not yet. In fact, there is no such thing as intragenerational decision making in the context of maximizing overall social good given resource limitations, there are just decisions being made in an ad hoc fashion. Even if one assumes that there is such a thing as intragenerational decision making, no uniform standard or guidance exists to make societal decisions for the common good. Risks to society are judged unevenly within the same agency and across agencies. Decisions are made in isolation and not weighed in the societal context of what is intra or intergenerationally important. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) has set forth a framework for intergenerational decision making that provides a consistent and fair basis for making tough decisions in order to address difficult issues such as the long-term disposal of nuclear wastes. NAPA recognizes that there is an intergenerational obligation that must encompass broader questions than the narrow issue of waste disposal since resources are finite and needs are great. The fundamental principles are based on sustainability with the overarching objective that “no generation should needlessly, now or in the future, deprive its successors of the opportunity to enjoy a quality of life equivalent to its own.” Coupled with this objective are four supporting principles of trusteeship, sustainability, chain of obligation, and precaution. The NAPA process also recognizes that no decision can be final and that a “rolling future” view is better than making decisions for “all time.” It attempts to balance the needs of the present with those of the future in an open and transparent process that is aimed at producing a decision, not just endless analysis. The U.S. Congress and president should develop a rational standard by which to judge laws that involve intra and intergenerational issues relative to the overall societal good. Present regulations need to be evaluated relative to a uniform level of risk and benefit to assess where the limited money available can do the most good for both the present and future generations in the context of NAPA sustainability principles. It is hoped that decision makers will take a serious look at this process since it can work to resolve stakeholder stalemate.
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Keywords: Congress; EPA; Intergenerational risk; Yucca Mountain; decision making; equity; high-level waste; intragenerational risk; resource allocation; sustainability

Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Kadak Associates, Inc., Barrington, RI 02806

Publication date: 2000-12-01

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