The publication of the tailored review on the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) sets out some revised principles for the Committee’s future role.
While the review says that the Committee’s role and objectives needs updating, and that these should be set out in a new framework, the Government says little about what that role might actually be. However, one specific area of activity under review is the extent to which, and on what basis, CoRWM more actively participates in public and community engagement.
The July appointment of Sir Nigel Thrift as CoRWM’s new Chair underlines the Government’s awareness of the need to shift priority as the siting process relaunches. Sir Nigel is a human geographer, a social scientist. This is a marked shift from CoRWM’s historic technical/scientific foundations, and a recognition that the issues are increasingly social rather than technical – civics not science.
The minutes from CoRWM’s recent public plenary sessions indicate that the Committee itself has been examining whether and how it should become more active and more visible. Those who gave evidence to the Committee, including GDFWatch, were in agreement that a revamped CoRWM could have a critical role in building public trust in geological disposal and the siting process.
The tailored review says conclusions on CoRWM’s engagement role and activities will be progressed during December. This short timescale suggests that the Government already has an outline plan. In a tight fiscal environment, even if BEIS wanted a much-expanded role for CoRWM, the Department may not have the funds for anything other than a passive role.
However, given the wider civil society sector’s concern that RWM may not be viewed as a ‘neutral player’, there may be value in a body such as CoRWM filling the engagement void. The Chief Executive of a large national community-based organisation noted that even if RWM employed a small army of “independent” facilitators, they would still be seen as having an ‘agenda’ and that a community would most likely treat the relationship as ‘adversarial’ from the start. This is a difficult foundation from which to build trust.
But CoRWM might be able to provide an effective bridge to trust-buiding, especially in the early stages of public and community discussion. Whether CoRWM is staffed-up, or funds a partnership with civil society organisations, is less important than ensuring the initial awareness-building programme delivers not just increased public understanding, but confidence in geological disposal and the siting process.
While experience normally dictates against optimism, there are sufficient signs that the Government recognises the need for a revised role for CoRWM. We can only hope Ministers hear the fears of the civil society sector and equip the Committee to be an active and effective trust-building bridge with communities.