Last week we shared a report from one of Japan’s leading newspapers, The Mainichi, that claimed geological disposal would be discussed at the forthcoming G20 Summit. We also said we’d seek to find out further information.
What we have found out:
We keep a watching brief. Even if the conference proposal does not get raised at the G20 this time, the need to globalise the debate does not recede. The Japanese will certainly keep banging their drum.
However, the nature of any conference and subsequent global debate is important. If it is just the same nuclear sector faces speaking only to each other, “the converted”, then little progress is likely to be made. It is time to include community voices in the debate. There is a sound basis to build upon the initial work of the ground-breaking IAEA technical workshop from last November, at which municipalities and community representatives from around the world gave a common message to the nuclear sector – listen to us, don’t lecture us.
The IAEA workshop revealed the many, largely unheard, community voices that provide powerful and relatable testimony in favour of geological disposal. And in a world of fake news, faux science and information overload, these communities can create ashared repository of knowhow and experience which is more publicly trusted than anything a government, agency or NGO can ever hope to achieve.
Stakeholder speculation about the future direction of RWM was inevitable after the announcement of current MD Bruce McKirdy’s retirement.
What’s striking, as you listen to influencers across the stakeholder spectrum, is the degree of unanimity of opinion outside RWM on how the organisation might progress. Regardless of whether you speak to someone in the nuclear industry, local government, public agencies, trades unions or academia, there are common perspectives on the situation.
RWM has been undergoing an internal transformation, as well as investing in new skills and resources. Changes are not always visible, but it is an increasingly different organisation to when it was founded 5 years ago. Bruce McKirdy’s departure focuses attention on the skillset and experience his successor will need, in the next phase of development, to effectively marshall those changes and best deploy the new skills and resources in order to move the siting process forward.
Across the stakeholder map there appears to be a common view that prior nuclear experience is not necessary. The emphasis of opinion on the required skillset is towards finding someone experienced in “people” and “politics”. Whether that’s someone with previous public agency, infrastructure, local government or other leadership experience seems less important to stakeholders than having a record of understanding how to work with local government and communities, of building relationships, and of managing Whitehall and Westminster.
As the GDF project progresses to actual site investigations and beyond, everyone recognises that different resource priorities, skills and leadership will be required at different points of the journey. But at this stage in the GDF programme’s lifecycle it appears commonly accepted that it is primarily a social and political initiative, to build trust and open a discussion.
Whoever is appointed will clearly also need to demonstrate the capability to manage complex technical and regulatory issues, maintain RWM’s excellent technical reputation, ensure appropriate governance, account for the expenditure of taxpayers funds, and successfully argue the case for further public investment. If there is a stakeholder worry, it is that in a risk-averse nuclear sector culture, the chosen candidate will be a “safe pair of hands” administratively, but lack the dynamism to drive the siting process forward in conjunction with communities and local government.
There is no underestimation amongst stakeholders of the difficulty of this recruitment challenge, to find someone to make progress with one of the most challenging public policy projects imaginable. However, there is little that is new in these stakeholder perceptions of how RWM should evolve.
In the past five years, RWM has conducted two major, in-depth surveys of stakeholder opinion. The results of these surveys have yet to be published, but GDFWatch understands that both surveys reveal a universal high regard for RWM’s technical competence, acknowledgment that RWM was making changes in the right direction, but a residual concern that the organisation was not backing up its words with sufficient deeds in terms of being an effective community engager.
We may know by Christmas who is to lead RWM into the next stage of its development. Whoever that is will have one of the most challenging jobs in Britain. Their success will be defined not just by their organisational & management skills but on their ability to effect real change in the outside world — a world in which they need to secure other people’s ‘consent’.
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 quick 2-minute read, summarising major announcements and key progress during June from geological disposal programmes around the world – details on our international media coverage page:
In addition to ongoing international media coverage of Finland’s repository and the French site at Bure:
Decommissioning and geological disposal have both jumped up the agenda in Japan. The need for new interim storage facilities at Fukushima has been recognised and agreed by the local prefecture. But generally, local communities worried that such “interim” stores will become permanent. Media urging Government to take geological disposal off the policy “back burner”, as regulators suggest nuclear sector should learn from US and Europe’s decommissioning and radioactive waste management experience.
The long-term challenges of radioactive waste management and disposal are cited in several Asian countries as key shaper of public anti-nuclear sentiment, eg in Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines and Bangladesh — in Taiwan, its an issue in the Presidential election debate.
There are also growing calls in Asian countries (eg Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia) to stop shipments of hazardous waste from richer countries, and to impose similar regulation on this waste as is applied to radioactive waste.
In the CNN ‘Climate Change’ debate between Democrat Presidential candidates, the issue of radioactive waste was a key concern amongst the anti-nuclear candidates. All favour a ‘consent-based’ approach, but each candidate means different things.
Unsurprisingly, continued congressional inertia is expected on Yucca Mountain and geological disposal until the 2020 elections. Nevada is a key ‘swing’ state, and is using that position to stymie any congressional action. Nobody’s happy with the status quo — least of all Californians, as San Onofre continues to generate lots of media coverage.
Even proposed temporary high-level radioactive waste stores, to remove waste from closed nuclear power plants pending a final repository, are now facing uphill struggles. The oil, gas & fracking industries fear such facilities could remove large areas of land available for their exploitation.
One of the company’s proposing such a temporary facility, Holtec International, has other problems, as its home state New Jersey freezes a tax cut pending investigations that Holtec has misled regulators. Holtec has plans to acquire closed nuclear power plants, to speed decommissioning and removal of radwaste, but there are continued protests about the sale of Oyster Creek and Pilgrim power plants to Holtec.
While no money for Yucca is expected before 2020 elections, the Senate has approved a $400m budget for WIPP — which anticipates a 50% increase in shipments by 2023.
Rest of the World
Continued international concerns about a leaking US interim surface store in the Marshall Islands, with radioactivity levels “higher than Chernobyl”.
Local community ballot in Australia on hosting a low-level radioactive waste facility is to proceed, but local indigenous peoples and environmentalists have not given up on their attempts to halt the process.
The Government Minister responsible says the difficulties in finding a radioactive waste facility means Australia should tackle that problem before committing further to nuclear.
Protests in Canada against proposed low-level waste repository by the Ottawa River.
On 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, signatory nations re-commit to not disposing of radioactive waste on the continent.
2-Minute Summary from July 2019 ….
Most progress continues to be made in Europe. On top of the on-going formal public debates and consultations in France and Germany:
IAEA says Norway could do more to strengthen its radioactive waste management procedures, while Italy is censured by European Court of Justice for not complying with requirement to develop a radioactive waste management plan.
Political stalemate reigns supreme in the US, as different tiers of government actively thwart one another, leaving those who live closest to and most affected by radioactive waste frustrated at the inaction.
Everyone agrees a permanent repository is required, but there’s no apparent majority for any of the options. The US Senate (which previously blocked Yucca funding) has now proposed funding in their draft 2020 budget. The US House of Representatives (which previously and overwhelmingly backed Yucca funding) has proposed a 2020 budget without any funding for Yucca. Nevada’s position as a ‘swing state’ now means Democrats reluctant to rock the boat there.
Several, all bipartisan, bills have been submitted in both Houses of Congress which side-step but don’t address Yucca. The bills variably are focused on either compensating communities where radioactive waste is being stored indefinitely in interim surface facilities, allowing long-term temporary storage facilities for waste designated for disposal, or creating a more consent-based site search process.
Political commentators observe this may become an electoral problem for the Democrats. Many elected representatives have nuclear facilities in their own constituencies, and local voters want it removed — so local voters may not be forgiving if their representative defies their wishes while playing a DC ‘game of stalemate’.
But as Washington fiddles, the real world moves on. A late-breaking scandal as the Department of Energy admits low-level radioactive waste may have been shipped to Nevada in error, for many years. Calls for Rick Perry’s resignation, and a political gift to Nevada’s politicians. The political fall-out may take several weeks to settle.
In New Mexico, newly-elected State officials, including the Governor and State Land Commissioner, now oppose Holtec International’s proposed temporary radioactive waste facility. The communities hosting the planned facility continue to vote in favour, but now feel they are being stymied by State-level actors.
A similar State versus Local confrontation in Washington state, where there is strong local support for the proposed federal reclassification of radioactive wastes, but opposition from the Governor. The proposed reclassification of wastes, which brings the US in line with international standards, would allow more low-level waste to be disposed of more quickly and more cheaply than sending for geological disposal. The proposal is overwhelmingly supported by local government bodies, communities and local media (ie those most affected and informed), but opposed by more remote agencies (ie those least affected on a daily basis).
Protests in India against a planned interim surface storage facility at the new nuclear power plant — with campaigners claiming geological disposal is safer than surface storage.
Japan secures support at G20 Summit for greater international co-operation on geological disposal. A conference is expected, but still no news on the when, where and what will be on the agenda.
President of the Marshall Islands conducts a series of interviews with international media outlets to express her concern after the UN Secretary General’s warning about a ‘leaking’ Cold war-era surface storage facility.
Concerns over whether Israel is properly managing its radioactive waste, following a Report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. While Provinces in Iraq have refused to host new radioactive waste storage facilities.
Late-breaking news, as a federal court rules against legal bid by an aboriginal group to block a local ballot on whether Kimba community should host a low-level waste repository.
Borehole-drilling programme being expanded as geological investigations commence in the communities still in consideration to host a deep geological repository.
The issue of radioactive waste is a feature of a wider public debate about Canada’s potential use of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). Chiefs of the Anishinabek Nation vote against SMRs, concerned that Canada could become the world’s dumping ground for radioactive waste.
2-Minute Summary from May 2019 ….
A quick 2-minute read, summarising major announcements and key progress during May from geological disposal programmes around the world – details on our international media coverage page:
France, Germany and the UK are all conducting some form of public dialogue programme to engage with the wider public. There has been significant media coverage of the formal French national debate, but we’ve seen little media or English-language coverage from Germany (which suggests a lower-level public profile). The UK’s siting process has been slowed by the wider political instability and fall-out from Brexit, local government elections and the European elections – unsurprisingly, local politicians not rushing to put a “nuclear waste dump” on the public agenda when they’re fighting for their most basic political survival.
Slovakia and Czech Republic speak publicly about their attempts and preference to have a shared geological repository. Ukraine receives EU, US and NATO funding & support to help speed disposal and safe management of Soviet-era radioactive waste in the troubled region.
A significant milestone achieved in the development of geological disposal repositories, as Finland ‘plugs’ (ie seals off) an underground test/demonstration tunnel. While in Sweden, the latest poll shows 80% of local residents support the planned repository in Osthammar.
Switzerland starts its borehole drilling investigations. Austria seeks to stop any nuclear facilities being built close to its borders in neighbouring countries.
Yucca Mountain still a political football, with no clear outcome in sight. Republican majority in Senate now want to progress funding for Yucca, having previously blocked funding to help protect a Republican Senator facing re-election in Nevada. The Democrats won that election, and now are blocking funding because Nevada has become a key swing-state in the Democratic Presidential candidate race and subsequent 2020 elections.
In the US House of Representatives, which in recent years has been overwhelmingly in favour of funding Yucca, the Democratic Party leadership are showing no enthusiasm for opening the Yucca Mountain can of worms, and have not proposed any funding. However, pressure growing to sort out the radioactive waste destined for disposal which remains at multiple surface locations across the country.
Government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) produces several reports, effectively saying it is becoming more expensive to American taxpayers to do nothing than build a repository, and that a clear disposal strategy urgently required.
The local community hosting Yucca Mountain have written to Congress, urging they proceed with funding. Current best bet, is that US Congress may stop short of funding Yucca but will find a compromise around permitting the type of interim consolidated storage facilities being proposed in New Mexico and West Texas, with some form of review around a ‘consent-based’ approach.
Japan attempting to make geological disposal an issue of global debate, like climate change, by trying to place the matter on the agenda of the forthcoming G20 debate.
The future of nuclear power, and a new referendum on radioactive waste disposal, still a matter of contention and demonstration in Taiwan. TaiPower’s previous “deceit” over finding a site to store radioactive waste has undermined public trust in the organisation, allegedly making it easier for the company to become a political football between competing political parties.
Substantial and widespread global media interest in a South Pacific interim surface storage facility which is allegedly leaking radiation into the local environment.
The National Waste Management Organisation (NWMO) will shortly be starting initial investigative borehole drilling in southern Ontario, and have embarked on an information campaign to explain this next stage in the search for a suitable site for their deep geological repository for higher-activity waste.
The Saugeen Ojibway Nation are expected to hold a vote before the end of 2019 on whether they support Ontario Power Generation (OPG) plans for a repository for low-level radioactive waste.
The surprise re-election of the federal government, suggests that the Australians will press ahead with their plans for a low-level waste repository in South Australia. However, the issue is still before the courts, as some aboriginal groups complain they have not been properly consulted. An Andyamathanha woman has been appointed as the local Community Liaison Officer for the planned repository.
Rwanda trains staff in radioactive waste management and signs a nuclear co-operation agreement with Morocco. However, there continues to be a debate in Africa over waste from electronic equipment, including solar panels. There are few effective controls over exporting this waste from wealthier nations (unlike radioactive waste), and so Africa is becoming the dumping ground for products with highly-toxic wastes that do not decay and are not properly disposed of.
Provided as an information, inspiration, and research resource for journalists and the wider public, our regularly updated archive of stories from around the world reflects how the media in different countries are reporting on geological disposal and long-term management of radioactive waste.
The archive is, sadly, not yet searchable. However, it covers the planet, with thousands of reports from almost 100 countries, including: Abu Dhabi, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Holland, Honduras, Hungary, India, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Moldova, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, UAE, UK, USA, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Wales and Zambia.
Currently we can only source English-language stories, but if anyone discovers a news story, especially if it’s not in English, please send to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This resource will be updated regularly, and we’ll alert everyone when new content is available. There are now thousands of articles to review, from local and online media through to internationally-regarded titles such as Time Magazine, Forbes, Nature, NY Times, The Economist, Washington Post, etc.
You can visit the current articles page here.
For articles from January – September 2019, please click on this link to our Jan – Sep 2019 Media Archive.
For articles from 2018, please click on this link to our 2018 Media Archive.
For articles from 2017, please click on this link to our 2017 Media Archive.
The sociopolitical challenges RWM faces were starkly revealed by the community sector’s response to a recent major Government funding announcement. Their reaction suggests that the package of GDF-related investment and other funding, while being ‘necessary’, is not necessarily ‘sufficient’ to secure a community’s consent to start initial discussions or formally enter the siting process.
At the forefront of the sectors’ concerns is ‘collaboration’, and more active involvement in shaping policy and how it is implemented. This aspiration, particularly in the context of a ‘consent-based’ siting process, is likely to become a key area of discussion as RWM seeks to build awareness, trust and confidence with communities.
The evidence for this analysis can be found in the community/civil society sector reaction to the Government’s recent £1.6 billion ‘Stronger Towns Fund’ announcement. Instead of welcoming the extra cash, across the board there was frustration and concern that once again there had been no consultation with those affected, that this was another top-down solution, and was throwing good money at bad means of delivering real benefits to communities. Those expressing this opinion included:
Their reaction suggests that RWM cannot simply throw money at communities – instead communities and their representatives are more likely to seek much greater collaboration and involvement in creating and implementing the GDF siting process.
And acquiescing to these demands (which it will be difficult to resist in a consent-based process) might actually lead to more robust, sustainable and trusted community partnership frameworks.
There is a wealth of experience in the sector in managing citizen and community participation in decision-making and long-term planning, and much work has already been done by the sector in reforming the relationship between communities and local government. This experience and expertise is core to the fundamentals of the community partnerships envisioned by the Working With Communities policy.
Communities may have no expertise in radioactive waste management, but RWM has zero experience of building local democratic institutions. This sounds like an environment ripe for co-operation and collaboration.
GDFWatch has flagged this issue on previous occasions. Whether that be the similarities between the GDF siting policy and Localism Commission recommendations, or the range of research and publications by the civil society sector around empowering communities and citizens. There is also a wider public political debate about the state of our democracy and making decision-making more relevant to ordinary people.
Initial political, public and media reaction to RWM’s current Site Evaluation consultation underlines the difficulties faced in building trust with communities. Aside from expected NIMBYism, there is also appears to be a widespread , underlying lack of belief that the GDF siting process is actually “community-centric”.
The whole ‘consent-based’ approach is novel and new to the United Kingdom. But people have little trust in such government pledges. A more collaborative approach to determining how a community partnership might operate, decisions are made, and the right of withdrawal is protected, is likely to be critical to building community trust and confidence in the siting process. Radioactive waste is a difficult enough ‘sell’ but is complicated by an honestly-proposed but cynically-regarded community-based decision-making process.
Nobody would necessarily choose to host a GDF, but like every other country we need to find somewhere to safely and responsibly dispose of our radioactive waste. Thus, the process by which we go about finding a willing community and suitable geological site becomes critical. The siting process needs to be transparently fair, balancing the rights and needs of the community and the developer. Involving the civil society sector and drawing on their experience and expertise in developing the consent-based community partnership approach, is likely to be a key and productive step towards building community trust in the GDF siting process.
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.
With Britain in sensitive Brexit discussions about the Irish border ‘backstop’, the GDF may have inadvertently become a new diplomatic point of contention between the two countries.
This is one of several running stories in the UK media this week, that underline the complexities and sensitivities of finding a site for a geological disposal facility:
There is a common thread running through these stories, of people rushing to judgement and hyperbole before checking their facts. For example, the reaction in Northern Ireland was driven by an otherwise-innocuous RWM information video describing geological features of the County Armagh area. There are similar short videos for every region of England, Wales and N Ireland.
A local newspaper decided to fact-check the allegations that the British government was considering an area near Newry for nuclear waste disposal. The newspaper concluded that while the claims have elements of truth, they also have elements of falsehood, saying: “Preliminary work has been carried out to see if the site in Northern Ireland could work, but we are far, far away from a GDF in the North being a reality given how much would have to happen before it could be built.”
This, more nuanced view, was also expressed by an Irish politician living just across the border. Fine Gael councillor for Dundalk, John McGahon, said the initial report was likely nothing more than a “fishing expedition”, that the probability of any plan being approved was “extremely remote”, that it was important politicians on both sides of the Border were not “asleep on the issue”, but equally that local representatives did not engage in “scaremongering”.
The reactions, particularly in Wales and in N Ireland, were predictable, and are wholly understandable, particularly in the context of nationalist politics. However, they also underline some other common themes underpinning media coverage and political reaction, eg:
This week has seen the first salvos in what will become a prolonged period of media, public and political discussion. The initial media and political reaction was to be expected. It will now be interesting to see how RWM accommodates anticipatable reactions and moves forward to construct a more positive environment in which to nurture informed public debate.
A full list of UK media articles can be found in our international news pages.
A new opinion poll revealing the depth of public despair at how our current democracy operates is published on the same day as GDFWatch argues in a leading community sector magazine that the GDF siting process could also be a major social infrastructure change programme to help address the local democracy deficit.
Communities in Control: a local democracy laboratory
A Government policy announced without fanfare just before Christmas potentially has implications for everyone working to enhance local democracy and empower local decision-making, writes Roy Payne, executive director of GDFWatch.
The new policy, called Working With Communities, provides a framework — and more critically, the funding – to help communities exert more influence over, and be more involved in, long-term social, environmental and economic planning in their area.
Although created to support delivery of a major nationally-significant energy infrastructure programme, the new policy is effectively a huge social infrastructure change project.
It establishes a new and unique Community Partnership framework designed to proactively and pragmatic solutions to some fundamental issues of community representation and engagement. For example, how do we best:
The Government has also made significant commitments to fund a wide range of activities, including:
The policy framework and funding might be in place, but the project currently lacks any flesh for these barebone principles. That’s where the localism, local wealth creation, local democracy and community development sectors might now have a role to play.
Cynics will observe this all seems too good to be true. To be sure, there are inevitable caveats. But what makes this policy different from anything that has gone before, and why it might pique the sector’s interest, is that the Government requires a community’s ‘consent’ throughout this process.
Let that sink in for a moment. The Government requires your consent. You can walk away, without obligation, at any time. That changes the whole negotiating and power-balance dynamic. It provides the community sector with new and unique leverage to secure an equitable and meaningful partnership with central and local governments.
So, what are the caveats and constraints? First of all, over the 10-30 year lifecycle of the project, it is likely that no more than 10-12 areas will be involved. Any area in the country could be involved, but only a handful are likely to be actually involved. This offers the opportunity to create ‘mega pilot projects’ in which new ideas and techniques around community participation and empowerment can be trialled and evaluated. The lessons learned applied to other areas of public policy. The evidence built to show central government that local people can be trusted with decision-making responsibilities.
But the biggest hurdle is the subject matter. Nuclear waste. The international scientific consensus, on a par with that behind climate change, is that every country needs to build a specialised facility deep underground. The international political consensus is that any site must have the approval of the local community. These are huge projects. The UK’s facility is likely to cost around £20 billion, with an operating life in excess of 150 years. Wherever it is sited it will have profound long-term implications for the surrounding communities and economy.
Finland, France, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada are all well ahead of us in securing community consent to build such a facility. The UK has learned from their experiences. The requirement to gain a community’s consent is the driving force behind the Working With Communities policy. It is a radical and new approach in the UK to how communities can shape and determine infrastructure projects. But the principles of ‘consent’, and experience learned from direct community involvement, could be applied across a wide range of public policy challenges.
We live in the most centralised ‘democracy’ in Europe. Despite paying lip-service to devolved decision-making, Westminster does not yield power easily. The Government have been required to introduce the ‘community consent’ principle because it is international best practice. The consent principle offers a foot in the door to wider local democracy reform, if we can show Government hard evidence that people can actually be trusted to evaluate complex issues and make pragmatic decisions.
Rebalancing power and bringing decision-making closer to those affected is one of the key challenges we face as we look to a society beyond Brexit. Nuclear waste may not be the issue you would choose to engage with. But if we are to develop new and more democratic ways to govern our affairs in the 21st Century, perhaps resolving one of our ‘dirtiest’ intergenerational problems is the best place to start.
A community’s frustration at not being allowed to even consider hosting a geological repository (a GDF) is amply demonstrated in this interview on Nevada Public Radio.
Dan Schinhofen is vice chairman of the Nye County Commission. It is his community which would host the US’ geological disposal facility at the proposed Yucca Mountain site. He and his fellow residents are angry that their community’s concerns, aspirations and interests are being ignored by a distant urban-based political and commercial elite.
During the interview he makes the following key points:
The written article accompanying the audio interview can be read here.