As Putin’s army unleashes unimaginable misery on the people of Ukraine, it seems trite to talk about the war’s impact on geological disposal programmes around the world. But the invasion is changing our world, including how publics will debate geological disposal.
The evident risks that humans pose to surface-stored radioactive waste, the renaissance of fears about nuclear weapons, the urgent debate about energy security, the unchanging need to address climate change, and the likelihood of accelerated civil nuclear new build will all combine to reframe how societies discuss geological disposal in the future.
As the world held its breath over assaults on Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, less-well reported is the shelling, accidentally or otherwise, of radioactive waste facilities across Ukraine. Much of this waste is low-level, but underlines the point that radwaste which is harmfully radioactive for 100,000 years needs to be buried deep underground, as far away as possible from the insanity of how humans sometimes behave.
Critics of geological disposal worry about an incident deep underground, while ignoring the risks of an incident overground, on the surface. Any complacency about the stability of the planet’s surface environment, and of human society, should be shattered by the invasion. Any perception of an endlessly unchanging world has been ripped, in a matter of weeks.
In the weeks before the war, GDFWatch, in a series of articles and international podcasts, spoke about the relative risks of trusting the safe stewardship of radwaste for the next 100,000 years either to deep rock formations that have not changed in a billion years, or to humans on the surface,. Could anyone now present a cogent argument that, even if we get through this war, humans will never screw up again, in some way, during the next one hundred millennia?
Furthermore, Putin’s veiled threats has resurrected a seemingly forgotten issue for post-Cold War generations – nuclear weapons. Assuming we avoid nuclear armaggedon, any sustainable resolution to the current conflict will presumably require an updated global peace and security framework. That may include at least the dawnings of multilateral nuclear disarmament. What to do with the radwaste from those weapons – leave on the surface awaiting the next Putin, or some other human misadventure? Or bury deep underground where it can threaten us no more?
This war makes clear the environmental and ethical case for removing from the surface, and away from humanity, the high-level radwastes we already have from both civil and military nuclear sources. The question about whether we want to generate more new radioactive waste is where the public debate will become much trickier for any discussion about geological disposal.
The role of nuclear in delivering energy security and meeting climate change goals is about to become a much more prevalent public discussion than it has been in recent years. The issues have always been there, but the wider public have not really engaged with the debate – until dependence on an energy supplier who wreaks war upon us has made it an urgent political issue.
Even before the war, we were beginning to suffer the rising costs of imported fossil fuels. Now, on security and cost grounds, every country is considering how to make themselves less reliant on energy imports, and reassessing how they can generate more of their own energy. Renewables are the answer, but how fast can they be introduced to address the often mutually-diverging public interests of meeting the climate change challenge, keeping the lights on, being energy ‘independent’, and all at a price we can afford?
There are no easy answers to any of this. The publics in each country will have to make environmental, financial and energy security pay-offs at every turn. Renewables are not without their own ecological costs and risks, and can they service energy consumption demand in the short-to-medium term? Nuclear may help in decarbonising energy production while keeping the lights on, but at what environmental and long-term waste disposal risks and affordable costs?
Environmentalists around the world generally oppose geological disposal, as they perceive that having a route to the safe disposal of radioactive wastes ‘permits’ new nuclear build. The only exception to this is Germany, where the Green Party supports geological disposal as the ‘least worst’ option. No coincidence that Germany is the only major economy to have renounced future use of nuclear energy, so environmentalists can support the best environmental solution available, rather than oppose it.
The UK Government will shortly publish an urgent new energy plan, in response to the accelerated need created by the invasion of Ukraine to wean the country off imported energy. New nuclear will be at the heart of this plan, and of the subsequent public debate. The same is likely in many other countries. Given the global fears stoked by the attacks on Chernobyl and other Ukrainian radwaste facilities, we can expect that the safe management and geological disposal of long-lived radwastes will become a more prominent and integral feature of any public debate about investing in new nuclear power-generating capacity – in a way that it has not really been before.
It is this sudden, and tectonic, shift in sociopolitical context that the geological disposal sector needs to grasp and comprehend. Too often in the past, the sector has appeared to manage geological disposal programmes in a contextual vacuum, divorced from the wider social and political forces (mostly non-scientific, non-technical, and non-nuclear) that shape public sentiment and attitudes. That’s no longer a tenable path if we are to make the planet safer from the vast volumes of long-lived radioactive waste currently stored on the surface at thousands of sites dotted all around the world.
Whether nuclear should have a role to play in future energy generation, energy security, and climate change mitigation, is about to become a more lively public debate. However, as events in Ukraine have shown, that is a completely separate discussion to how we safely remove existing wastes (and any from disarmed nuclear weapons) from the surface, so that a future Putin or other human failure does not threaten our environment.
Critics of geological disposal always ask the “what if” question: what if something goes wrong underground? The concern is genuine and needs addressing. But those same critics never ask the question: what if something goes wrong, period?
Because IF something is to go wrong, it will either happen underground, or overground on the surface. There are no other options to keeping radioactive waste: it is either underground or overground. So, if something goes wrong, and there is an undesired radioactive release, it will either happen underground or overground. Which would you prefer?
The relative risks between a radiological leak happening overground or underground is currently a ‘live’ issue in the United States. Following the rupture of a waste package at the US’ geological disposal repository, WIPP, a US government nuclear watchdog has been warning that similar packages to the one which ruptured are still being stored on the surface, presenting a much greater environmental and public health risk.
Even worse, the watchdog says that because of poor record-keeping, it is hard to identify which of these packages are most at risk of rupturing. Which begs an important secondary question about human fallibility: what will be more stable and reliable over the next 100,000 years — deep underground rock that’s been constant for the past billion-plus years, or the human beings living overground on the surface?
Underground or overground? Emplace the waste deep underground in unmoving rock far away from an ever-changing surface environment, or entrust the safe-keeping of that waste for the next 100,000 years to humans overground on the basis that homo sapiens is capable of, and guaranteed to, never ever make a mistake?
These issues underpin the concerns of an official US nuclear watchdog, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), expressed in a terse and technical letter to the US Government, following an inspection at the Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) in 2020.
The rupture incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in 2014 “did not pose a public health concern”, according to the US’ Environmental Protection Agency. This is because the event happened in a contained environment deep underground. However, the DNFSB is worried that if a similar package were to rupture on the surface it could release lethal doses of radiation, and be more hazardous to the public and to the environment.
Making matters worse, is the fact that because of poor record-keeping it is hard to identify the hundreds, and possibly thousands, of ‘at risk’ packages — compounding the original human error of failure to follow safety protocols, which caused the package rupture at WIPP in the first place.
At the time of the WIPP incident, critics were quick to point to the dangers of geological disposal. Whereas, in fact, the good fortune that the rupture happened underground, rather than overground, saved and protected the public and surface environment from far worse consequences. As is now being highlighted by the DFNSB.
It should be noted at this point, that the US government is taking remedial steps in response to the DFNSB’s concerns. And that from a UK perspective, technical standards and regulatory oversight are much more stringent here than in the US. So, while we may not face the same immediate risk, the principles remain the same: over the long-term, which is the least-riskiest way to manage radioactive waste — overground or underground?
Communities considering whether to host a geological repository (a GDF) will inevitably, and rightly, be concerned about the long-term safety of an underground facility. However, to over-focus on the risks, real or perceived, of underground emplacement means that we can delude ourselves to ignoring the greater risks of keeping radioactive waste overground for the duration.
During the 100,000 years we need to concern ourselves with, civilizations will rise and fall, ices ages will come and go. The issues of climate change and a changing surface environment, allied with human fallibility to manage radioactive waste, are currently being played out on a remote Pacific island, Runik Atoll.
In the 1960s, the US placed radwaste from its nuclear test programme in a purpose-built facility on the uninhabited atoll. They did so before climate change was a consideration. But with rising sea-levels, there is early evidence that radioactivity is or is about to start escaping the facility. The US response has been slow, because even after just 60 years, the facility had basically been ‘forgotten’ by the US Defense Department.
So, within our lifetime, the consequences of human inability to predict changing planetary surface conditions, and our ability to perform administratively less well than we’d like, are revealing the stark risk differentials between keeping radwaste underground or overground over the long-term.
Fears about contaminated water or radiation leaking back to the surface from deep beneath us are to be expected. There is an absolute need to carefully evaluate every proposed repository site, and involve the local community in that process, to address concerns and build reassurance. But that should not blind those communities or anyone else to the greater risks to our air, water and soil that keeping such radwaste overground presents over time, when compared to placing it permanently underground.
Critics of geological disposal seem to assume that we are taking radwaste from relative ‘safety’ and creating additional risks, when in fact, as the DFNSB concerns and Runik Atoll situation highlight, the opposite is true: placing radwaste underground reduces long-term risks compared to keeping overground.
There are literally thousands of sites across the planet in which radioactive waste is currently stored overground. Every single country with such facilities has plans to move that waste to underground facilities. And while those communities impacted by a potential repository site can perceive this as a ‘local’ issue, in fact this is a planet-wide programme. It is a massive global undertaking, akin to the scale of the climate change challenge, and as important to protecting our planet and ourselves long into the future.
Nobody alive today chose to have this waste. It is a legacy bequeathed by previous generations. We may yet decide to halt further production of such radioactive wastes, but pending that decision should not delay us in taking steps to end the cycle of inaction on managing the radioactive wastes that already exist. It is an uncomfortable and difficult conversation, but we have a choice whether to start addressing the issue on behalf of future generations.
That choice starts with answering the simple “underground or overground” question. You probably don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to make that fundamental risk assessment. But we do need to be clever in how we go about ensuring the risks are reduced when placing radioactive waste deep underground, and nurturing public understanding and support.
So, underground or overground? Trust to the stability of the Earth’s deep geology for the next 100,000 years, or over the same timescales, trust to the stability of human behaviour and the planet’s surface environment?
The establishment of the first Community Partnerships is a milestone achievement for the GDF siting process. A key challenge for 2022 is whether they will command credibility in the wider communities in which they operate.
Listening to the observations, experiences and expectations of community players from areas in which there have been initial or working group discussions, provides an outline roadmap of concerns to be addressed — even if some of those concerns are misplaced or based on misconceptions. For while Community Partnerships may have been established administratively, their future membership and modus operandi have yet to be fully defined.
The experience of the early and working group stages of the siting process still leaves many community players worrying about ‘justness’ and the ‘balance of power’ within this unique and untested consent-based approach to public participation and decision-making. These concerns are rooted less in ‘the science’ of geological disposal and are much more focused on ‘the rules of the game’, ie who will be on the Community Partnership and how, in practice, will it operate.
Regardless of location, or from which community demographic the community players come, the core concerns seem to be:
• the role of principal local authorities and local politicians
• the capacity and capability of local communities to engage on an informed and ‘equal’ basis
• perception of RWM’s actions and behaviours
Given that this is a unique and very different process from any previous infrastructure project, these concerns are unsurprising. Many of the concerns may just be ‘of the moment’, to disappear or be resolved as the siting process moves forward this year. However, if left unaddressed, some of the concerns have the potential to either stall the process at an early stage, or inadvertently be baked into the process, to emerge as a problem in latter stages.
Role of local authorities & local politicians
There are two distinct key areas of concern amongst community participants about the role of local authorities and local politicians – when the local authority is an active participant in the siting process, or when local politicians express disapproval.
There was a perception amongst community players that the working group stage was largely driven by RWM, with the active cooperation of a local authority, and little meaningful wider community participation. The RWM/local authority relationship is seen as potentially ‘too cosy’, stoking underlying fears that a siting outcome will keep being progressed regardless of local participation and sentiment – these fears only fuelled by the fact that to date the initial membership of Community Partnerships comprises only RWM and local authority reps.
Working Groups are not intended in themselves to be broad-based bodies, but designed to lay the ground for Community Partnerships, which are intended to be the broader based bodies within which to manage longer-term dialogue between developer, local authority and communities. Given these have been the very first working groups, there was always going to be scope for misunderstandings and misplaced-expectations, from which to learn. It would seem that one of the earliest issues to address within the Community Partnership is clarity of expectation, and even of ‘language’, as different sectors, whjch don’t normally meet together, can sometimes have different interpretations and understandings of simple words, phrases and concepts.
Many of the concerns expressed, whether well-grounded or misplaced, should start being addressed during 2022. The selection and appointment of Community Partnership members will indicate how broadly the community is to be ‘represented’ on the Partnership. Once these members are on board, the outcome of discussions about how the Partnership will operate can contribute to providing the foundations for building higher levels of clarity, and of community confidence and trust.
More interestingly, is the question of how RWM reacts in situations where community groups show interest, but there is little local political appetite (or even active opposition) to engaging with the siting process.
RWM’s current position appears to be that before starting a working group stage, they need confidence that the process can move to a community partnership (which requires local authority participation). This approach is understandable from corporate risk and programme management perspectives, but does seem a divergence from the core rationale and principles of the Working With Communities policy.
There is a danger that the lessons learned from the review of the previous failed siting process may be lost. One of the key lessons was to avoid over-dependence on local authority and local political relationships – local authorities and politicians come and go, while the community is perpetual. These issues are assessed in more detail in this associated analysis.
Capacity & capability of local communities
In any local community there will be a finite number of individuals and organisations with relevant skills, experience, and local networks to support the work of a Community Partnership – and they will each already have their own existing time and resource constraints. Thus, there are concerns from potential community participants about the extent to which they can engage with the siting process on a sustainable basis, or re-direct the resources of their local organisation.
Moreover, regardless of any locally-relevant knowledge, potential community participants are conscious that there will be significant issues for the Community Partnership to consider or scrutinise that go beyond the competence of anyone living within their community.
Although funding for, and access to, independent advice is enshrined within the Working With Communities policy, how that is realised on a day-to-day basis remains an issue of concern for many of those interested in participating in a Community Partnership. Their concern starts at the very first step – given that Community Partnerships are completely new models of community engagement and participation, community players worry they “do not know what they do not know” in terms of defining the functions and processes of the Partnership in a way that will adequately provide a just balance between the interests of all participants.
This suggests that even before Community Partnerships start to consider the results of geological investigations, or longer term socioeconomic and environmental ‘visioning’, they may need external support to help give shape and form to how the consent-based framework operates in a way that works locally for both RWM and the community – ie, establishing the ‘rules of the game’ for how the Community Partnership, in practical terms, will go about its business.
Perceptions of RWM’s behaviour and actions
Although many individual staff are respected and regarded, it is hardly surprising that RWM, as a corporate entity, is still viewed with some suspicion and despair. It was probably ever going to be thus, with trust taking time to evolve, and through deeds rather than words.
Community players report a level of dissatisfaction from early interactions, with complaints about queries and questions being responded to too slowly (and sometimes not at all), commitments made but unfulfilled, and a closed mindset to considering alternative courses of action that deliver the same outcome, or willingness to try and understand an issue from someone else’s perspective. These feelings are generally expressed in terms of:
• RWM’s “omnipresence” – by providing all the secretariat staff and support services, working groups and Community Partnerships are viewed as being more local implementation arm for RWM rather than being partners in the process;
• “group think” – that the wider governmental geological disposal ecosystem has established paradigms, a belief in the ‘rightness’ of their own opinions and approach, and too quickly dismissive of others’ proposals;
• perceived “controlling” behaviours – that RWM seek to be involved in every conversation and activity, creating a sense that RWM lacks trust in others, and is dictating and directing activity for fear of losing control of the process.
It is almost certainly true that some of these concerns are misplaced or arise from misunderstandings. For instance, given the early stages of the process, RWM is currently the only organisation with the remit and resources to provide the necessary administrative support – this presumably will change as Community Partnerships develop their own infrastructure and start managing their own affairs; considerable thought was given to the Working With Communities policy, much of which may be new to individual local community participants, but RWM is not in a position to renegotiate or re-open; after failures in previous siting processes, the developer (RWM) was specifically given a ‘place at the table’, and some of its actions will be shaped by governance and other duties/obligations to Parliament and the taxpayer.
There is some evidence to suggest that ‘language’ is already a barrier to communication and understanding. For instance, RWM take a legal/constitutional interpretation of the phrases “community representative” and “decision-making” — members of the Community Partnership do not ‘represent’ the community as they have no elected or legal mandate, and the Partnership is not a legal ‘decision-making’ body like a local authority.
But community players hear something else when they are told they do not represent nor can make decisions for the community. From their perspective, even if they are only an employee of a local organisation, their membership on the Community Partnership would be to help articulate (ie ‘represent’) a particular opinion within the community (why else would they be on the Partnership?); and while a Partnership has no legal authorities, it will make decisions, eg on how the community might be engaged, which expert might advise on interpreting geological data, when to call for a Test of Public Support, etc. So while RWM are trying to accurately explain the purpose and limits of the Partnership, community players hear an unintended rejection of the community dialogue and consent-based principles underpinning the Partnership.
But none of these perceptions and concerns are unique to the UK. They reflect tensions that nuclear agencies globally have in their relationships with communities, as evidenced from discussions at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) workshop with mayors and community leaders from around the world. Acknowledging, and then addressing, such community concerns, over issues real or perceived, is core to RWM’s challenge — with the ‘how’ you do it as important as the ‘what’ you do.
Like everyone else in this unique, new and untested process, RWM is having to find its feet, working out new relationships and ways of doing business. It almost certainly needs to become more ‘self-aware’ as an organisation — sensitive to how it is perceived, and how its behaviours impact on others. There is a risk to being too defensive too quickly when challenged. As much as RWM wants, and needs, others to learn and adapt, so it will also need to learn and adapt.
The GDF siting process is not just another standard major infrastructure consultation project, as the consent-based principle means this is a wholly new approach to implementing public policy. RWM clearly recognise this, as they will shortly announce a social science research project looking at new models of citizen engagement and participation. This is a welcome step.
But none of the concerns expressed to date are surprising, or terminal. They do reinforce the requirement for all parties in the process to be understanding of the needs and concerns of others. And they will inevitably start to be addressed during 2022 in the discussions on how Community Partnerships will conduct their business, as a vehicle for dialogue between RWM, the local authority and the local community. Given the siting timescales involved, there is no immediate need for anyone to hurry or rush to any judgements.
Early evidence worryingly indicates that either there has been a loss of ‘institutional memory’, or that the Working With Communities policy is being interpreted too conservatively by those who were not around at the time of the policy review debate. Either scenario presents significant risks to the potential success of the GDF siting process.
The role of local authorities was one of the most keenly discussed issues during the policy review (2013-2018) that followed the last, failed siting process and which laid the foundations for the current siting policy.
The final balance in the Working With Communities policy was described by one local authority leader at the time as the “perfect, have your cake and eat it” policy for local politicians: at no immediate point are they required to take decisions, and they can reserve their public position until it becomes clearer what their voters actually think.
Feedback from community participants involved in the early and working group stages of the current GDF siting process focuses around two key local authority issues, which were flagged during the policy review and public consultations as situations to avoid – over-reliance on partnership with a local authority, or conversely, allowing local politicians to veto community discussion.
Given that we are at a very early and still explorative stage of the siting process, there is undoubtedly plenty of scope to amend and evolve how the siting process is implemented. Thus, perhaps helpful to quickly remind ourselves of key issues and debate that informed, shaped, and underpin the original intentions of the Working With Communities policy.
Key policy review issues
The Community Partnership model emerged from debate about how you could sustain a complex and difficult public discussion over many years (and electoral cycles) before sufficient information was available, and before any decisions were required – and that when required those decisions should be made by a community on an informed basis (the consent-based principle).
Analysis of previous siting processes highlighted the shortcomings of relying upon a local political decision-making process that was driven and motivated by shorter-term considerations, and an aversion to addressing complex longer-term issues. Furthermore, although local authorities are legally the representatives of their communities, the policy review revealed widespread public cynicism about how well they perform this ‘community representation’ function.
The Working With Communities policy was therefore designed to:
a) create a flexible framework to account for the different circumstances in which communities might enter into the siting process;
b) allow ‘space’ and time for a public discussion that was not prematurely foreshortened by local electoral or minority opinion pressures;
c) ensure that all parts of a community were engaged and able to participate in, and influence, those discussions;
d) prevent any local authority, individual, or group to ‘veto’ (or continue) the process without broader community agreement.
It is a unique and novel (and even ‘experimental’) approach to addressing a long-term public policy issue through a more participative decision-making framework. Since there is no prior ‘template’ or pre-determined/well-trodden path to interpreting and implementing the policy, its success will depend on a more open-minded and expansive approach, rather than one driven by risk-aversion and remaining within a comfort zone – a progressive approach, which from initial feedback from community participants, is not yet seen as being fully embraced.
Local Authority ‘dependency’
Local authorities clearly need to be involved in the siting process. Given their responsibilities for social and economic development, and other statutory obligations, it would be folly to exclude them from the process. However, the risks in too closely relying on a local authority remain unchanged from the policy review debate, eg:
• hostage to being entangled in local authorities’ processes and electoral pressures, at a time when such entanglement is not necessary to progressing siting process community discussions;
• individual local authorities may disappear, but the community is perpetual – the ONS record a history of local government reorganisation every decade since the 1960s, and we know further change is likely, with this Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper imminently due — notwithstanding the ever-present potential for further change over the 20-30 year lifespan of a local siting process;
• perception within the community that the developer and local authority will drive this project through regardless of local sentiment – which is at the core of current community participants’ concern, and has become a very ‘live’ issue in the latter stages of the Canadian siting process because of the perceived too-close relationship between municipality and developer.
It is perhaps not unsurprising (and at the very earliest stages of the GDF siting programme possibly unavoidable) that the initial working groups and community partnerships should all be of a similar ‘local authority-led’ model. However, if this becomes the ‘standard’, the risks of repeating errors of the past remain self-evident, and, more importantly, risks closing down any alternative ‘community-led’ models envisaged within the Working With Communities policy — models that are potentially more viable, and sustainable, over the longer-term.
An ‘ideal’ scenario envisioned during the development of the Working With Communities policy, was a siting process led by a broad-based community coalition, self-motivated on ethical, environmental and economic grounds, taking the time to consider the issues and scientific evidence before coming to a final conclusion.
This was not a ‘romantic’ notion, but based on evidence that the sustainability of a siting process would be enhanced if the community felt a degree of ‘co-ownership’, rather than feeling that the exercise was being ‘imposed’ on them by their local authority.
It was recognised at the time, that such ‘community-led’ models may meet opposition from local politicians and authorities – as understandable an initial reticence as might be felt in any part of the local community. Therefore, in support of ‘community-led’ models, the Working With Communities policy rules out any ‘veto’ by local political leaders over a community-inspired desire for initial discussion.
However, there are concerns that such local political ‘vetoes’ are currently being allowed. In effect, quashing innovative, community-led approaches, and closing down democratic community-led conversations — with potentially grave consequences for the wider GDF siting programme.
Notwithstanding the obvious difficulties of supporting a community-led exercise in the face of initial local political and authority opposition, failure to support community-based coalitions will send a poor signal to similar groupings wanting to kick-start a process in other localities, and will reinforce concerns amongst community participants in ‘local authority-led’ siting areas that the community’s voice is secondary to local authority and political preferences. Either scenario does not augur well for successful siting process outcomes.
No part of the GDF siting process is without its difficulties, especially in these early stages. Addressing initial opposition, whether that is from the community or local politicians, will be par for the course. There may be initial comfort and a sense of reassurance by focusing on those areas with a willing local authority and politicians from the start, but avoiding the risks of engaging with less willing local politicians and authorities creates its own risks to the longer-term success of the broader GDF programme.
The ‘local authority-led’ and ‘community-led’ models will require different approaches. The latter may take more time to move from working group to community partnership stages, as initially reluctant local politicians will want and need to see how their community/voters react to the discussion before agreeing to participate in a Community Partnership.
But it will be many years before local politicians are required to take a position or make formal decisions. Any impacts on existing social and economic development plans will also be many years in the making, and can slowly be incorporated over time into ongoing local authority planning. Indeed, a Community Partnership could even be seen as a cross-community blue-sky think tank, exploring ideas. Should any of those ideas gain traction, presumably local authorities and politicians would then make them their own!
If it did become apparent that there was real, broad-based community support for GDF-related investments and impacts, how many politicians would continue to stand in the way of their electorate, even if they had been reticent/cautious earlier in the process? Hence the comment from a local authority leader about the “perfect, have your cake and eat it” policy.
Given the fundamental ‘experimentalism’ inherent within the Working With Communities policy, there are risks to the siting programme in it either being perceived as working too closely with a local authority, or it inadvertently shutting down innovative community-based models at a premature stage.
Advancing the siting programme on a more sustainable longer-term basis almost certainly requires stepping into uncharted, and initially uncomfortable, territory rather than taking an over-cautious, business-as-usual approach to community consultation and engagement. This is a truth relevant to potential participants from all sides of the process.
A notable aspect of Germany’s geological disposal debate, is the ‘support’ it is getting from the Green Party. This is not found in any other country. Why?
On a working hypothesis that the universal laws of physics apply equally in Germany as any other country, the answer seems less likely to be science-based, and more likely to be socio-political.
Alone amongst nuclear nations, Germany has renounced the future use of nuclear power. One consequence has been the Green Party coming to the fore in addressing the safe disposal of legacy radioactive waste. Earlier this year, a European Parliament report, led by the German Green Party, concluded that geological disposal was the “least worst” solution.
One person’s ‘least worst’ is another person’s ‘safest’. It’s a shared fact, but viewed from different perspectives.
Germany’s renunciation of nuclear is the ‘variable’ that perhaps explains why Green Party’s elsewhere oppose geological repositories on environmental and ethical grounds, while the German Green Party supports geological disposal on environmental and ethical grounds — even if a little reluctantly.
Green Party’s in other countries oppose geological disposal because they fear the availability of a repository will ‘permit’ new nuclear build. However, every Green Party can follow the German Green’s lead in helping to find a safe site for a repository, by decoupling the two debates, without undermining their strategic objective.
Whether we should create more radioactive waste in the future is a perfectly legitimate, and important, public debate. But it is separate from the discussion around what to do with the waste we already have. As Germany shows, even if nuclear power is renounced, we’ll still have a pile of nuclear poo to get rid of, regardless.
A report out of the recent Climate Citizens Assembly revealed the ambivalence of Britons to nuclear power (basically 50/50 for and against), but the majority concern about radioactive waste. This is consistent with many other poll findings.
It therefore seems entirely plausible that the inevitable public discussion around finding a site for a GDF would also help inform a separate debate related to new nuclear. The radioactive waste consequences of any decision on a nuclear future being hardwired into the debate, in a way not possible for previous generations.
Surely we should trust to our fellow citizens to be able to both:
a) start a process of sorting out our worst nuclear waste
b) have a separate, parallel debate about whether we wanted to generate more waste
If geological disposal is good enough for the Greens in Germany, why not here?
With communities expected to start coming forward shortly, there is still a significant task to flesh-out how Community Partnerships might be structured and managed.
Community Partnerships, and the ‘consent’ basis of the siting selection process, are a completely new frontier in infrastructure development — a collaboration of local community, local authority and central government, to build an intergenerational decision-making body that takes account of local concerns while delivering a nationally-important environmental facility, as the UK’s contribution to international agreement.
This is a unique and unmapped process. It requires innovative thinking. Indeed, new international social science research suggests that geological disposal programs might better be viewed as “real world experiments”.
Accepting this new social frontier challenge, GDFWatch is working with academics, legal experts, local authorities and civil society representatives to explore what the democratic and participative underpinnings of a Community Partnership might look like.
It is highly unlikely that individual small communities will have either the skills or the bandwidth to create a new democratic vehicle. And RWM are obliged to apply the same fundamental contract/criteria to every participating community. More importantly, the creation of Community Partnerships for the GDF siting process will not be happening in a vacuum. There is significant expertise, thinking and activity already in the wider ‘democratic innovation’ field (eg Citizens Assemblies, Devolution, etc) upon which to draw.
There’s been a plethora of guidance published in just the past few weeks alone, eg:
This builds on a vast canon of research and analysis previously reported upon by GDFWatch.
Having a ‘template’ Community Partnership’, in which a community can see their rights being enshrined, will be critical to building trust. If that template has been shaped by a range of civil society players, it will carry more credibility than any drafted by just one party to the agreement.
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.
RWM are experts in packaging nuclear waste, but have no experience in creating local democratic institutions. As RWM explore how to engage constructively with communities, there is a wealth of expertise, and a huge amount already going on, in the civil society sector.
In a consent-based local democratic decision-making process which requires the active participation of the community, there seems to be no reason for RWM not to engage in a more collaborative way with the civil society sector. The sector’s expertise and activities can help flesh out the barebone principles of the ‘Working With Communities’ policy.
What that collaboration looks like remains to be discussed, but the kinds of areas where civil society organisations can play an important role can be easily seen in a high-level overview of announcements and activities from just the past 4-6 weeks. The following list is far from comprehensive. It is simply provided to stimulate ideas, raise mutual awareness, and encourage further discussion.
This is but a snapshot. GDFWatch has previously profiled a wide range of organisations and their work, and how the GDF siting process would not only benefit from these organisation’s input, but that the siting process might also actually help deliver these organisation’s wider ambitions, eg:
A follow-up in depth analysis by the Los Angeles Times has generated subsequent media coverage across the world.
While disavowing any responsibility or accountability for the radioactive waste leftover from US nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific, the Trump Administration did get angry at anti-US graffiti painted on the “interim” storage facility.
The Marshall Islands are considering legal action, as rising sea levels caused by climate change (unpredicted when the facility was built half a century ago) threaten a significant radioactive leak on and around Runit atoll.
In a separate but parallel story, French Polynesia is also considering legal action against France for its failure to properly manage radioactive waste left over from French nuclear bomb tests in the 1960 and 70s.
See original news below, as UN Sec General raises first alarm.
The United Nations Secretary General’s recent warning about a South Pacific interim radioactive waste storage facility leaking radiation is perhaps the loudest alarm call yet against keeping such wastes on the surface of the planet, when we could be more safely disposing of the waste deep underground.
Many environmentalists are opposed to geological disposal because we cannot be sure that deep geological disposal will isolate and contain radioactive waste for millennia. They argue that we should keep the waste in monitored surface facilities until a better alternative solution is found.
While it is true that scientists cannot offer a 100% guarantee for the next million years when burying radioactive waste deep underground, the South Pacific facility highlighted by the UN Secretary General is evidence that there is practically a 100% certainty of a dangerous radiation leak somewhere on the planet during that time if we keep the waste on the surface for a prolonged period.
It is a question of risk management. Deep geological disposal reduces risk to minimal proportions, and scientists can provide safety assessments with confidence for at least the first few centuries. Such high levels of surety are possible because the underground environment has not changed in billions or millions of years and will not be affected by future surface climate change or human activity.
However, the same levels of surety are not possible when it comes to the stability of the surface environment and human society over the coming centuries — indeed, as evidenced by the radiation leak from this facility, climate and human society changes have already adversely affected the surface environment, in just 60 years!
If something is going to go wrong (and experience suggests we should be cautious and prepare accordingly) we have a simple choice: do we want a dangerous radiation leak to happen on the surface where we all live, or in a contained space isolated deep beneath the surface far away from humans and the surface environment?
We have already seen this risk choice in action. In 2014 a package leaked radioactivity in the US’ deep geological repository. The repository needed to be shut for four years, but all the harmful radiation was kept isolated 600m below the surface and did not pose a risk to people living at the surface. After investigation, it was discovered that the package had only recently been placed underground. The package had been a hidden ticking time bomb, and fortunately for everyone it went off deep underground and out of harm’s way. Had it ruptured while on the surface, the human and environmental consequences could have been catastrophic.
Then in 2018, radioactive waste which had been stored on the surface for 60 years at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) had to be moved into new packages, as the original packaging was decaying and becoming unsafe. During this repackaging process the old canister ruptured, releasing radioactivity. Fortunately, again, there was no risk to local people. If the US had a permanent geological repository, the waste could have been moved underground and no further repackaging may have been required. However, the longer we retain surface storage, the more often we will have to remove radioactive waste from ageing and decaying canisters and place it in new, safer packages. Every time we open an old package we risk opening pandora’s box — and there are hundreds of thousands of such packages around the world. Can we be 100% certain that for each of the millions of times that this will need to be done all over the world over the next few centuries that this won’t result in at least one mistake or accident?
In the first incident we were protected because the incident happened underground (though could have happened on the surface). In the second, safety standards protected us this time, but we cannot give a 100% public safety guarantee for the millions of times in the future when we will have to repackage waste in order to keep it on the surface.
The nuclear sector will, rightly, point out the safety standards and procedures that they now have in place internationally to make interim surface storage safe. The South Pacific facility was built in the 1960s, when radioactive waste technology and science was in its infancy — and when our forefathers did not give the attention to effective radioactive waste management and disposal that we now do. But rising sea levels and a largely forgotten facility in a distant unpopulated atoll show what can happen even over a relatively short period of time as climate changes and human society errs.
There is no present and immediate danger from interim surface stores. They are, to all intents and purposes, safe. But they are not a long-term solution when faced with the inevitable ice ages that are coming, and the fragility of human society. With Brexit, the UK has no idea what the next 6 months will hold, let alone the next 6, 60 or 600 years. Rocks at depth evidentially provide a more stable and reliable protective environment over the long-term than mercurial human society.
For all the concerns that some environmentalists have about geological disposal, compared to keeping radioactive waste on the surface indefinitely, burying it as far away from the surface as possible seems a much less risky proposition in every scenario. More than that, it also means that this generation takes appropriate responsibility for its actions/mess rather than leaving future generations to pick up the tab for our poor behaviours.
Entering into the geological disposal process seems like a voyage into the unknown. The complexity and length of the process itself can be a barrier to entry for most communities. However, the recent Environmental Court Hearings in Sweden, and testimony from people involved in the Swedish process provide helpful guidance for UK communities contemplating the journey.
The Swedish Court Hearings are the culmination of a journey which has taken more than thirty years. The Environmental Court didn’t even exist when the municipality of Östhammar first put itself forward for consideration to host Sweden’s geological disposal facility (GDF). And much else has changed over the period: from the people who now live in Östhammar; to the state of scientific knowledge; to the public’s expectation of, and the laws governing, protection of the environment.
So how do the Environmental Court Hearings and the experience of those involved in the Swedish GDF process help UK communities begin to understand the journey ahead of them?
Firstly, the Court Hearings provide a clear ‘destination point’. The voyage is not into the unknown. After three decades of geological analysis, scientific data gathering, developing technical plans, environmental impact assessments, and dealing with community concerns and aspirations, all of the information is being independently reviewed before Sweden can move on to the next stage of the process – securing local community consent.
The Swedish GDF legal process is of course different to the UK, but the underlying principles are the same. At some point in the future, all of the information will have to be reviewed before a UK community is asked to make an informed decision on whether it wants to proceed. And a community can walk away, without any obligation, at any stage before this point.
Secondly, the experience of those who’ve long participated in the Swedish GDF process offers insight and advice on the journey for those in Britain following their path. It is the testimony of ordinary people tackling an extraordinary issue. Residents, local politicians, environmentalists, and the industry offer their thoughts below. Common themes appear: the need to build trust; an ever-changing world; the importance of openness and honesty; satisfactorily answering every technical and community question before moving to the next stage.
First elected to the local council twenty years ago, Jacob Spangenberg has been Mayor of Östhammar since 2006. Over that time he estimates half the population has changed through death, birth and migration, and notes that very few elected councillors remain from when Östhammar first entered into the GDF process.
“Retaining awareness in the community has not been easy”, he says. “There are long periods, when research and analysis is taking place, when there is little to talk about. Three-year gaps between updates on the project’s progress were the norm.”
But he praises the work of the Regulators and SKB (the Swedish GDF developer) in earning the community’s trust and helping to sustain the community’s engagement with the process, saying: “The Regulators provided neutral advice and information, and took time to regularly speak with community representatives. SKB learned lessons about listening to community concerns, and actively engaged with environmentalists and other opponents, treating their worries with respect.”
Honesty and openness were fundamental to sustaining community support. Spangenberg says everyone knew where everyone stood, and that even if you disagreed there was never any feeling of hidden agendas. He sums up his advice to others: “ask every question because nothing can happen until every question you have asked has been answered to your satisfaction.”
The GDF process in Östhammar has spanned Birgitta Söderberg’s teaching career. When it started she was a young teacher who held strong anti-nuclear opinions. But as she progressed to being Headteacher, and now advising the council on future education services, she says the honesty of the discussions now mean she believes the facility can be built safely and contribute to Östhammar’s community growth and development.
“Chernobyl was a defining moment. We were very affected, even having to ban outside picnics that summer. But it prompted a debate in schools which started to change opinions. If we have waste, we need to keep it safe. Though we were clear from the start, this should only be Sweden’s waste, not anybody else’s.”
Critical to building her trust and providing reassurance has been the honesty of all involved, even shaping how she votes at election time: “People increasingly vote for personality over political party. How someone managed questions about the GDF issue helped determine whether I trusted and respected them.”
Looking ahead to the future Söderberg believes the GDF will play a significant role in helping support expansion of educational provision in Östhammar: “More young people are staying in Östhammar because they can get the qualifications they need, and increasingly there is skilled work available locally. Better educational services will also make it easier to attract inward investment and skilled workers from outside.”
Johan Swahn still has major reservations about the safety of the proposed GDF, but recognises that the process for deciding whether to proceed has been fair, with everyone afforded the opportunity to express their concerns.
Swahn leads MKG, an NGO focused solely on radioactive waste, which is publicly-funded to ensure there is an independent community voice in the GDF process. MKG still has major concerns about the long-term safety of copper canisters and questions their reliability to isolate waste for over 100,000 years. The organisation has successfully shaped the debate and influenced how the process has evolved, with Swahn mentioning community concerns about nature: “SKB were initially focused purely on geology and nuclear waste safety, with no regard to habitat and species protection. This was an issue of great local importance, and we ensured it became integral to the wider GDF process.”
During the decades since the process in Östhammar started, Swahn points out that national environmental protection attitudes, expectations and legislation changed significantly. He was initially concerned that the Environmental Court might be shackled by other regulators, and be a mere rubber stamp for the GDF. However, experience has proved otherwise: “The Court has not only proved its technical competence, but has challenged the regulators on their approach. The Hearings were extended, and the Court went out of its way to ensure every voice that wanted to speak was heard.”
In offering advice to other communities, Swahn also stresses that the process is not just about geology and safe storage of nuclear waste, but that broader community concerns need to be addressed: “The impact of construction vehicles on local roads, noise pollution, the transport of nuclear waste, as well as protecting the local wildlife and environment are all factors that need to be properly considered. It is important that ordinary day-to-day impacts on the lives of local people are taken into account as well as the long-term safety of the stored waste.”
The Industry Rep
The long, slow GDF process has also had profound impacts on the developer. Apart from the natural turnover of staff any organisation would have over 30 years, Erik Setzman of SKB says planned change management has been critical to ensuring the company was responsive to the needs of local communities:
“At its core this is an engineering and nuclear waste management project, but that doesn’t mean we’ve always been led by engineers and nuclear experts. Developing relationships with communities has meant that over time we’ve had to prioritise resources and recruit senior managers with other skillsets.”
Setzman says SKB learned from early mistakes: “It is important to give communities access to experts. But not every expert should be exposed to a community. It takes particular skill not to come over as arrogant. Building trust requires listening, and then responding sympathetically to community concerns. Even if the issue seemed tangential to the core project, if it concerned the local community, the issue had to be dealt with.”
The project also survived the decades, according to Setzman, because there was a stable long-term national political commitment and financial platform to support community engagement and the necessary detailed technical analysis of the proposed site. He notes that at the recent Court Hearings, no new issues or questions were raised: “It is not surprising that no new issues arose. We’ve had over thirty years of open dialogue and analysis. Everything that needed to be asked had been answered. But it was only at this point that you could start seeking the necessary permissions to proceed to construction.”
Another Resident: The Urban Planner
Torsten Blomé has only recently moved his young family to Östhammar. He knew about the GDF, and it was one of the factors that made the move exciting. Although he has not personally participated in a process which started before he was born, his new job depends on him understanding how Östhammar has changed over the past decades as he helps plan for its future.
Historically Östhammar was an isolated rural community, with educational, employment and wealth indicators below the Swedish average. That has changed. The Forsmark nuclear plant and other factors have contributed, but even the possibility of hosting the GDF has also given the community leverage to secure important infrastructure investment, as Blomé notes:
“The new Route288 has improved road connectivity with Stockholm, opening up new economic opportunities. Not only does it support the growth in tourism – about half the houses in Östhammar are now summer homes owned by people from Stockholm and elsewhere – but we are also diversifying the local economy and attracting interest from overseas investors.”
Such growth has increased land and property values, but with an expanding and increasingly skilled and better-paid community (unemployment is now half the Swedish national average) Blomé is confident about the future: “Increasing revenues will allow us to invest in a range of public services, particularly in education, so that we can create a community which attracts, retains and sustains people and high-skilled, better paid jobs.”
UK communities contemplating a GDF journey can turn to friendly and informed independent sources for advice on the voyage ahead. These ‘experts’ need not be scientists or consultants, they could just be ordinary people like yourselves.