Lessons from America

i May 27th No Comments by

Events in America over the past couple of weeks reveal some stark differences but also many similarities between the US and the UK that can help inform this country’s current debate on sorting out our nuclear waste.

Reading British newspapers you wouldn’t know there was a debate, or that two important public consultations are currently taking place on how we permanently dispose of our nuclear waste. Reading American papers you couldn’t miss the bipartisan fervour behind the proposed solution.

Across the US political spectrum, from The Heritage Foundation on the right, to progressives on the left like satirist John Oliver, there is common agreement that entombing the waste deep underground is the safest option. Called ‘geological disposal’, this is also the international community’s, and UK’s, preferred option. But in Britain the issue is unknown to the majority and opposed by a vocal minority.

Regardless of political affiliation, Americans seem to understand that leaving radioactive waste on the surface is environmentally, economically and ethically unsustainable. This view is in line with the global scientific consensus behind isolating nuclear waste underground far away from the effects of climate change. However, in the UK, opponents still argue that nuclear waste should be kept on the surface indefinitely.

Although US public, political and media opinion may agree on what to do with the waste (bury it deep underground), where the waste should be placed and how you go about deciding that is still a contentious subject. There are lessons to be learned from the American experience which directly feed into the current UK public consultations.

A potential site for the US nuclear waste repository has long been identified at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Despite a bipartisan majority in Congress supporting it, and local people supporting it, the project has stalled for decades primarily because of back-room political deal-making and disputes between different tiers of government. In this regard, the US and UK are very similar.

Disagreement between different tiers of UK government in part explain the delay in finding a site for our own geological disposal facility (GDF). Finding a suitable, safe site takes time. This generation may start the search process, but any final decision will be for the next generation to make. Hence why the current public consultation in the UK proposes a new intergenerational democratic process which is less vulnerable to short-term, electorally driven disputes between politicians. If we are to find a long-term solution to our nuclear waste problem, it will have to be a people-driven process, not a politician-driven process.

Community support and consent is fundamental to the British approach and this is being increasingly realised as important in the Unites States. Last week the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave initial approval to a private sector proposal for a temporary geological repository in New Mexico. Given the ongoing wrangling over Yucca, this new proposed site is being seen as more likely to succeed because it has enthusiastic, broad-based local community, business and political support. The reason for the support is simple: the project requires major local infrastructure investment, will create and sustain large numbers of jobs, and will generate new tax revenues for investment in local public and welfare services.

The opinions and involvement of people living closest to such nuclear waste facilities is critical. The UK proposals out for consultation seek to ensure a nuclear waste facility cannot be imposed on a local community. But as importantly, the proposals want to ensure that any community with an interest in exploring the issues further cannot have their will and wishes thwarted by external political forces.

The people of Nye County, where Yucca Mountain resides, want to explore their options. Whether hosting such a facility could be done safely and how the associated investment might help improve the quality of life for the area’s residents. However, Nevadan state politicians are blocking the process, angering the people of Nye County who feel that their community’s concerns, aspirations and interests are being ignored by a distant urban-based political and commercial elite. One local community leader points out that doing further research on the site does not mean anything will actually be built. His plea is simple: “let’s first have the facts. My grandchildren live here – if it’s not safe, we won’t want it.”

That is the crux of the current UK consultations: how do we create the right environment for an open discussion which may take decades before a conclusion can be reached, if at all. As the US experience shows, there are no quick or easy answers. The issue is so important to the environmental health of our planet, and to the socioeconomic well-being of any affected community. As the community leader in Nye County says: “just sticking your fingers in your ears and saying ‘no’ is not an answer.”


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