An important, and a novel idea for the nuclear sector, on community engagement can be found deep within a weighty tome on risk-assessed decision-making produced by the US independent watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It speaks directly to what is required for the UK GDF siting process.
The GAO performs a similar function as the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO). It’s recently published Environmental Liabilities report is critical of the US’ Department of Energy (DoE) for still failing to introduce risk-informed decision-making into its environmental cleanup plans. With a US$600 billion liability, which is ever-rising, the GAO believes the DoE is not doing enough to account for human health and environmental risks within a finite budget.
More importantly from our perspective, is a fascinating section on community engagement and involvement in the decision-making process. This is not just a US issue, but is relevant to every nuclear agency across the world. And is particularly relevant in the UK, in relation to the formation of Community Partnerships and how decisions are taken in evaluating and determining a potential GDF site.
The GAO make clear that there will always be differing opinions within local communities, and between different stakeholder groups. Currently, nuclear agencies make a decision and then try to get support for that decision. This is fraught with difficulties, polarises and generally antagonises everyone, and can lead to lengthy (and costly) legal and appeals processes.
The GAO’s ‘radical’ idea is to engage communities and stakeholders in co-designing a decision-making framework. This recognises that not everyone is going to like the final decision, but if the process for arriving at that decision has been discussed and agreed in advance by all the key parties, there will be more legitimacy in the outcome. The GAO also notes that decisions often require a high-degree of specialised knowledge, and can’t easily be left to those with limited technical understanding. And that is the reason why a decision-making framework that is widely accepted across the stakeholder spectrum is required.
Key points the GAO makes include:
With complex issues, generating conflicting opinions and emotions, it is not always possible to seek consensus for every decision. We can only resolve this problem through creating a decision-making process which commands widespread legitimacy.
In the UK GDF siting process context, this suggests that RWM should not develop a community-based decision-making framework on their own, and then try to get everyone to agree to it. They should start discussions with the community sector on jointly developing a decision-making framework that commands a high degree of ‘legitimacy’, so that decisions which are eventually made will stand public and critical scrutiny.
This is how democracy works. We set up rules within which we delegate decision-making. In the UK there is a widespread view that our democratic processes at every level are failing us and need renewal. As GDFWatch has previously argued, the GDF consent-based site selection process could not only deliver a repository, but also help reform our political and social decision-making processes. The GAO model offers RWM and the UK a credible way forward to achieving this.