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G20 Summit: Geological Disposal Update

i Apr 14th No Comments by

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:

  • The Japanese have been seeking other government’s support for an international conference on geological disposal through several international forum
  • As is usual for these Summits, the host organising country seeks to get issues it considers important onto the agenda
  • To their credit, the Japanese have identified geological disposal as an issue affecting all major economies, and want to place the environmental and ethical debate on a more global level, hence their desire to place this on the G20 table in some way
  • The behind-the-scenes horse-trading that goes on in advance of all such Summits may mean that the Japanese have to park their conference proposal for now

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.

Geological Disposal is Go?

i Oct 18th No Comments by

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any weirder, geological disposal programmes around the globe are making significant steps forward, all at the same time.

More seems to have happened, in sociopolitical terms, in the past month than perhaps in the rest of this Century combined:

  • Swedish community voting to host their nation’s geological repository
  • Two Japanese communities choose to enter into initial discussions
  • Expectation in UK that at least one community will come forward
  • Germany publishes geological analysis identifying potential host areas
  • Canada completes acquisitions of land that could host a repository
  • Hungary Opposition leader wants public debate on radwaste disposal

Country situations are analysed in more detail below, but taken together, it seems clear that geological disposal will become a feature of media and political focus in countries around the world over the coming 18-24 months.

Public and political reaction to, and media comment on, the events in each country are remarkably similar, regardless of cultural differences: after initial ‘horror’, a dawning realisation that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and a concern that decisions are made ‘justly’ and based on scientific evidence.

In the Covid-era, geological disposal seems to be being added to the list of ‘uncomfortable conversations’ our societies have to have, as we all look to ‘build back better’.

Sweden

The overwhelming vote in favour by Osthammar’s council was expected. The council had previously decided to dispense with a community advisory referendum, because successive opinion polls had clearly indicated increasing support for the repository amongst local people.

The local vote was required before the Swedish national government could make a final determination. That decision may not come until 2021, as the Government are also considering a difference of opinion between nuclear regulators and the country’s Environmental Court about the corrosion of copper canisters in which radwaste will be packaged for disposal.

However, the odds seem likely that the Swedish community of Osthammar will follow their Finnish neighbours, and become the second community internationally to give informed ‘consent’ to hosting a geological repository.

Japan

Events in Japan may foreshadow what will happen in the UK. Two local mayors tentatively raised the prospect of their communities opening initial discussions about potentially hosting a repository, setting off a firestorm of political and media reaction — leading to one of the mayor’s own home being firebombed.

Each mayor held a series of public meetings with residents, and the majority decision within both communities was to open initial discussions. Similar to the UK, this stage is more a ‘desk-top’ exercise, exploring whether the local geology could even host a repository. The community will receive grants for being in the process, but are not obliged to remain within the process.

The two communities were initially characterised as ‘impoverished’ and ‘so desperate’ that they were entering the process because they had little choice. The regional Governor voiced his opposition to the plans. However, as residents confirmed they were content to proceed, media commentary noted the need for a geological repository, but wanting the selection process to be open and ‘fair’.

Given Japan’s nuclear ‘history’, this issue will remain a hot political and media topic. The wider sociopolitical question seems not to be whether a repository is required, but how the site is selected. There are still concerns amongst anti-nuclear activists that despite Government ‘commitments’, once inside the process communities will not be allowed to walk away.

A 77-year old man has admitted throwing a petrol bomb at the mayor’s house, in protest at the repository discussions. This clearly will be a passionate debate, but hopefully, regardless of outcome, one based increasingly on reason, reasonableness, and addressing local peoples’ concerns. Very early days in a very long and emotive process. But an important first step.

Germany

There was huge media and political reaction in Germany to the publication of geological data that ruled out almost half of Germany’s landmass as suitable to host a deep repository.

Areas ruled out included the site of Germany’s existing ‘temporary’ geological repository at Gorleben. However, areas still included in the analysis (notably Bavaria and Saxony) have already started voicing their objections.

Those objections do not seem based on any opposition to geological disposal in principle, but more to naked Nimbyism. The Green Party are notable in their support for this science-based approach to geological disposal.

The next stage involves more detailed geological analysis, during which time communities will be invited to discuss the issues before considering whether to become more formally involved. The Germans hope to marry a science-based analysis of potential sites with finding communities in those areas potentially willing to host a repository.

However, it seems clear in the short-term, with federal and local elections in the offing, that geological disposal will be much higher up on the political agenda than it has ever been before.

Canada

The acquisition of 1500 acres of farmland allows NWMO to complete detailed geological borehole assessment programmes in both of the two final areas under consideration to host a deep geological repository.

However, despite years of extensive community engagement and education programmes, it seems many people in the affected areas are only just awakening to the fact that a repository may be built where they live.

A newly-formed citizens coalition against the repository plans admitted that a leaflet they distributed to 50 thousand homes was not based on any science, but baulked at NWMO’s initial pushback that this was wilful fake news/misinformation. NWMO are saying that debate is important and to be encouraged, to properly address public concerns, based on science and fact, not fearmongering and notions.

Following the collapse earlier in the year elsewhere in Ontario of plans for a low-level radwaste repository (largely because local indigenous peoples had not felt properly engaged in the process) more sensitive management of community sentiment is to be expected. NWMO’s approach to engaging with multiple communities over the years has been viewed as a model for the rest of the world, but their ground-breaking clearly continues to throw up new challenges.

All of this against a backdrop of concern about Canada’s radwaste management regulatory regime, and continued angst from US states bordering the Great Lakes.

UK

After public comments from two Cumbrian local authorities earlier in the summer, there is guarded expectation in the UK that one or more local communities will come forward for initial exploratory discussions, as in Japan.

However, the broader turbulent current sociopolitical environment in the UK may act as a brake on any such movement this calendar year.

Hungary

The leader of Hungary’s main Opposition political party raises the stakes, by calling for a public debate on radioactive waste, saying it’s “one of the greatest challenges of the coming decades”, and demanding that any repository site have the consent of the local community.

USA

Like so much else in the US at the moment, what’s going on in geological disposal is anyone’s guess. However, it seems likely, regardless of who’s President, that there will be a reassessment of siting policy, based on some form of ‘consent’.

There seems no dispute about the scientific case and environmental benefits of geological disposal, with even one of the US’ leading nuclear community groups making supportive proposals. The question, as always, is the sociopolitical issue of “how” to find a site.

Political pressure locally to remove radwaste from decommissioned nuclear facilities is growing. As is the cost. South Carolina recently won a US$650m lawsuit against the federal government. Other states may consider the same. The cost of doing nothing is becoming greater than the cost of doing something.

Alternative disposal solutions (such as deep boreholes) and interim stop-gapes are being investigated — but temporary underground holding facilities proposed in New Mexico and West Texas are facing increasing opposition, fuelled by concerns of the oil industry.

A very articulate analysis of the lack of political interest in permanently disposing of radioactive waste, when such interest is most required, has been set out this month in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist.

With a senior National Nuclear Security Administration official warning that a geological disposal facility will need to be open by 2050, when WIPP is due to close, time is running out to start planning for such an eventuality.

Rest of the World

A review of activity elsewhere in the world can be found in our most recent newsletter, and by reading through our international media update page.

Where are Green principles?

i Oct 18th No Comments by

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?

Community Co-Design & Collaboration

i Oct 18th No Comments by

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.

International Media coverage of geological disposal

i Oct 18th No Comments by

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 over 100 countries, including: Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Guam, Holland, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, North Korea, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, UAE, UK, USA, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Wales, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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 editorial@gdfwatch.org.uk

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 archived articles from 2020, please click on this link to our 2020 Media Archive.

For articles from 2019, please click on this link to our 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.

RWM appoints new Director of Communications & Stakeholder Engagement

i May 12th No Comments by

RWM have announced that Dr Guy Esnouf will be their new Director of Communications & Stakeholder Engagement.

Until recently he was the Director for Communications & Corporate Responsibility at leading UK energy provider nPower, until that company’s acquisition by E.ON

Dr Esnouf has held senior communications posts in a number of industries, including power & utilities, information technology, pharmaceuticals, as well as national politics.  RWM Chief Executive Karen Wheeler says he brings significant experience of community consultation, media management, and public relations for major infrastructure projects.

This is a critical strategic appointment for RWM, as the organisation prepares to engage with communities.  The consent-based approach to finding a community willing to host a geological disposal facility presents unique communications and engagement challenges.  Although RWM remain hopeful of progressing discussions with interested communities this year, the Covid-19 crisis has significantly altered the external environment.  Not only in terms of being able to engage effectively with communities during a time of social distancing, but whether there is even an appetite within communities and local authorities to discuss radioactive waste disposal when there are more immediate and pressing social and economic problems to address.

A complex and contentious project has not been made any easier by Covid.  In a recent media interview Guy Esnouf said he once had the “second toughest comms job” in Britain — he might now have the toughest communications job in Britain when he starts work at RWM, expected on 1 June.

RWM’s current Interim Communications Director, Debbie Huston, will return to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in June, after a short handover period.

The Boris Effect: GDF & the new Government

i Mar 3rd 1 Comment by

Boris Johnson’s election victory could have a profound effect on the GDF programme.  Not necessarily by any direct intervention, but certainly in terms of the changing sociopolitical environment, into which RWM is attempting to birth the community engagement phase of the site selection process.

Aside from the obvious new governmental focus on regional and major infrastructure investment, which should help support RWM’s efforts, Johnson’s administration appears sympathetic to the growing clamour for a post-Brexit ‘democratic settlement’ – devolving decision-making power, so that more decisions affecting local people can be made at a local level.

As GDFWatch has long and consistently argued, the GDF’s consent-based decision-making framework offers a unique, new and very practical approach to testing and developing community-based models of democratic participation.

A new report by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy found that three in five people (60.3%) were dissatisfied with the functioning of the British democratic system.   This supports previous evidence of general public discontent with how our democracy operates.

Since the General Election, there have been multiple calls from across the civil society sector for a focus on reform, eg:

Alongside these calls for democratic reform, there’s also an ever-growing evidence-base of how to engage and empower communities to help them tackle complex issues, eg:

This diverse evidence base, and the more general sociopolitical environment driving the demand for democratic change, go to the heart of how RWM might successfully engage with communities.  Much will depend on how far the Johnson government is actually willing to address demands for democratic reform.  The GDF siting process can provide a framework to test and trial new models for community-level decision-making.

As Dominic Cummings has noted, administrations should tackle difficult issues and decisions at the start of their 5-year electoral cycle – and what could be more contentious and difficult than a GDF?

2020: Year of The GDF ??

i Jan 12th 4 Comments by

Expectation is that 2020 will see the first visible ‘community’ steps in the revised GDF siting process. But what might those first steps look like, and what early hurdles will the siting process likely face?

And how will the newly-elected Government, with a mandate for change, and a majority that’s likely to provide 5 years of political ‘stability’, impact on RWM and the siting process?

Initial Community Engagement

There is some evidence to support RWM’s confidence that the first communities expressing initial interest in hosting a GDF will start coming forward during 2020. GDFWatch has been approached for advice by a number of local groups, but how many of these mature into more formal expressions of interest remains to be seen.

This is perhaps the first key feature to note for 2020 — Attrition. The siting process is designed to encourage multiple initial enquiries, but then over time filter down to just one preferred site/host community. It is therefore inevitable, particularly in the early stages, that more communities will leave the process than remain in it. So expect a degree of churn and turnover.

Reasons for such attrition will be myriad, but are likely to fall into three broad categories:

  • overwhelming initial opposition from wider local community
  • attitude and involvement of relevant Local Authority
  • lessons learned in trying to implement an otherwise new, unique and untested site selection process

The first category is hardly a surprise. No community anywhere in the world has initially welcomed the idea of a GDF with joyous open arms. The challenge for RWM in 2020 will be to create sustainable local platforms for dialogue and negotiation that can weather the initial reaction from some parts of the community — a reaction that may not reflect actual wider local opinion, but is sufficient to halt the siting process prematurely by making it politically toxic at local level.

At this “working group” stage, Local Authority involvement is not required. But their involvement in the next “community partnership” stage is. With local elections due, it is unlikely that LAs will meaningfully engage, even in informal discussions, about the siting process before then. So, the second point to note for 2020 — don’t expect much activity until AFTER May’s local elections.

How to interpret and implement the ‘Working With Communities’ policy is also likely to become a much wider and more visible public debate in 2020, and will influence the willingness of communities to enter into and/or remain within the siting process. The policy’s principles have been widely welcomed, but how they are applied will run into realpolitik on the ground, in communities. The lack of template or draft documentation has been raised by several groups and local authorities as a potential barrier to entry.

Community ‘Exit Strategy’

A key example of this policy/reality frontline, is the reassurance communities will need that they can withdraw from the siting process at any time, and that the final test of support will be vested in the community. Does any of us trust that a Government in 30 years time will uphold commitments given by a Government today? How this issue is formally resolved will be critical.

It is hard to see how communities would enter into long-term, detailed technical, safety, environmental and socioeconomic analyses without first nailing down their exit position, and then agreeing a set of ‘rules’ about how the siting process will operate and how their interests will be protected. Thus, another point to note for 2020 — expect much more public discussion about the ‘rules of the game’, before communities get into detailed technical GDF issues.

Political Environment

Advancing GDF policy has inevitably been hobbled by the political instability of the past five years. However, there is now a Government with a large majority, and an agenda for change which the GDF could help support on several policy fronts. RWM does not have a reputation for sophisticated political networking or cross-Whitehall policy management. But in 2020 there are opportunities to secure the political leadership and funding the programme requires, and to position the GDF programme as a much more broadly-based contributor to social, economic and environmental policy. For example:

  1. Chief No10 Aide Dominic Cummings has stated he wants to address contentious issues at the start of the 5-year term — what could be more contentious than the geological disposal of radioactive waste.
  2. The Government has come to power with a pledge to refocus infrastructure and economic investment towards the regions — what else is the GDF but a huge regional/rural infrastructure investment programme.
  3. The new administration has also indicated it wants to review how longer-term planning and local decision-making processes operate — the GDF siting process offers a practical framework for exploring new models for long-term infrastructure and socioeconomic planning, and for local democracy.

Whether it happens or not, 2020 offers an opportunity for the GDF programme to rise up the political agenda, and embed itself into the new Government’s wider policy objectives.

Summary

There is a clear expectation across RWM’s stakeholder universe that visible progress needs to be made in 2020. The evidence suggests that RWM will start meeting those expectations during 2020. But the evidence and environment also suggest that any progress will likely be small initial steps on a longer journey.

What does seem likely in 2020 is:

  • nothing substantive will happen until after May’s local elections
  • significant attrition, with fewer communities moving onto formal discussions than initially expressing an interest
  • more public discussion about the ‘rules’ of the siting process — how to turn the principles of the ‘Working With Communities’ policy into practical and effective mechanisms which build communities’ trust and confidence in the siting process and help the process proceed
  • an opportunity to position the GDF more centrally within the Government’s wider regional, economic, social and environmental change programmes

One thing is for sure — no visible, external activity by RWM in 2020 is not an option. 2020 will be the year things start getting real.

World Update in under 2 minutes ….

i Nov 17th No Comments by

A very busy start to 2020, with significant news and developments across the world. Access to the original media and other source materials is available on our international media coverage page:

Europe

The formal launch of the World Nuclear Waste Report in Brussels was used by anti-nuclear activists to demand an end to any nuclear new build, on the basis that there is no viable way of disposing of radioactive waste and therefore it is folly to create more.

The report was led by German Green Party members. They successfully led the campaign to end nuclear power in their own country, and are now participating in the increasingly public debate in Germany about where to site a deep geological repository — which even the German Green’s acknowledge as the ‘least worst’ environmental solution, and an ethical issue which cannot continue to be avoided by this generation.

Croatia‘s contentious planned low-level radwaste repository close to the Bosnian border, and their protracted discussions with Slovenia about how to jointly dispose of their shared radioactive wastes, continue to generate diplomatic waves and national media coverage.

United States

Donald Trump’s tweet did not deliver the political reaction he wanted, and left the issue of how to dispose of the US’ radioactive waste in an even deeper impasse. Communities and media across the country questioned what would now become of the waste they’re required to host locally in interim surface stores, while Congressional politicians optimistically express hope Trump’s intervention might pave the way to a new way forward. Ex-Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Allison McFarlane provides the best summary of the malaise.

In an election year, nobody thinks anything will progress politically, but pressure is building to find a solution. Nobody seems to question geological disposal, the debate being around how to identify a site, with local ‘consent’.

Holtec International’s plans to build a temporary radioactive waste facility in New Mexico are seen as one way forward, but changing pre-election political dynamics and calculations in New Mexico are making that task more difficult. Holtec also under pressure wherever they have acquired a closed nuclear power plant — people want radioactive waste removed quickly and at lower-cost, but few seem to trust Holtec’s ability to deliver.

Australia

Following a favourable local community ballot, the federal government confirms Kimba in South Australia as the location for a low-level radioactive waste repository, and quickly introduces the required legislation.

However, there is continued opposition to the plans, primarily from those not living in the area. The local Barngarla aboriginal community continue their appeal against a federal court’s ruling that the ballot was lawful. The Green Party seek to have a formal Senate inquiry into the legitimacy of the site selection process, and there are questions about whether the enabling legislation gives too much authority to Ministers to expand the site without further Parliamentary approval. A battle may have been won in terms of local support for the repository, but the war is not yet over as far as environmental opponents are concerned.

Canada

A not dissimilar situation in Canada, where the NWMO progresses its work, having reduced the number of potential host communities to a final two. However, this is against the backdrop of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s rejection of Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) proposed repository for low-level radioactive waste, and continued cross-border pressure from US lawmakers concerned about the impact of such repositories on the Great Lakes.

As NWMO reduced the short-list to two communities, it also revealed that there were now enough landowners on-board that specific potential sites could start to be identified. This provoked a negative reaction from some residents, who were seemingly still unaware of NWMO’s work. Their protest prompted Bruce County council to defer a decision on a motion welcoming the progress in the site selection process.

OPG are going back to the drawing board re how to dispose of low-level radioactive waste, as community debate and media coverage rose about the pros and cons of hosting NWMO’s repository.

Having rejected a repository for radioactive waste, the Saugeen Nation became the first indigenous group to join a nuclear council, to promote use of (profitable) nuclear isotopes in medicine — seemingly unaware that there will be a need for a repository to dispose of such medical isotopes.

______________

For start of 2020, rather than a quick 2-minute review of last year’s end, a very quick look ahead to major announcements and key progress expected in 2020 for geological disposal programmes around the world. Previous media coverage available on our international media coverage page:

Europe

Public debate likely to be amplified in both Germany and the United Kingdom, as each country progresses its search for a geological disposal site.

Sweden awaits a Government decision on whether to proceed with its geological repository, following the 2018 Environmental Court referral. Finland will continue constructing its repository, while France and Switzerland will continue investigations of their preferred proposed sites.

There may be further decisions on a site in the Czech Republic by the end of 2020, and the Belgian Government may eventually have to make a decision to follow expert recommendation and proceed with a repository, after years of political procrastination.

Slovenia and Croatia will continue discussing how to share a single repository, while Croatia continues to defend the construction of a low-level radioactive waste facility on the border with Bosnia.

Asia

Japan hosts the Olympics while struggling to cope with the radioactive and political fall-out from Fukushima. As the country enters the era of decommissioning, its plans for radioactive waste disposal are still evolving. No significant progress is anticipated during 2020.

After riots halted a previous site selection process, even China has acknowledged that it needs to engage communities more in discussing radioactive waste sites. How the country goes about that will be of interest to everyone.

Taiwan and South Korea will both continue to wrestle with the issue of how to dispose of radioactive waste, but no anticipated substantive activity during 2020.

Australasia

The Runit Dome radioactive waste store in the Marshall Islands will continue to alarm the international community. The US Congress has demanded a rapid review of the situation. The Dome is a beacon to the risks of trying to store radioactive waste on the surface over time.

Kimba in South Australia has voted to host a low-level waste repository. The federal government is expected to make a final decision during 2020.

Canada

The National Waste Management Organisation (NWMO) has now reduced the shortlist of prospective sites for Canada’s geological repository to just two communities. Borehole investigations continue, and until they are concluded no final decision can be expected.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) both have proposals for low-level radioactive waste repositories. These are confronting the same community issues as NWMO’s deep geological repository for higher-activity wastes. Votes by indigenous communities are planned in 2020, and the results of these will impact on whether the proposed facilities can proceed or not.

USA

In a Presidential election year, with Nevada as a key swing state, there is little reason to assume there will be any progress on Yucca mountain or any other proposed solution to the disposal of radioactive waste.

____________________________

2-Minute Summary from September 2019 ….

Europe

In addition to ongoing international media coverage of Finland’s repository and the French site at Bure:

  • European Union funds a new collaborative research programme on radioactive waste management.
  • Continued friction between Croatia and Bosnia over a planned low-level radioactive waste facility to be built near the border.
  • Russian court finds that there are insufficient anti-terrorist defences at a Murmansk radioactive waste facility. But Russia removes the last Soviet-era reactor that had been dumped in the Barents Sea.
  • Bulgarian court allows construction of a low-level radioactive waste facility, but Opposition leader continues to worry about the long-term costs of nuclear and building a deep geological repository.
  • France concludes its national public debate on radioactive waste management and geological disposal.
  • UK: a local Cumbrian council previously supportive of a GDF, but newly-elected councillors are less convinced.

Asia

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.

United States

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.

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2-Minute Summary from July 2019 ….

Europe

Most progress continues to be made in Europe. On top of the on-going formal public debates and consultations in France and Germany:

  • Finland announces a €500m investment in its under-construction repository
  • Holland starts a process of public engagement to develop a socially-acceptable and fair process for deciding how to dispose of its radioactive waste
  • UK publishes a National Policy Statement for geological disposal infrastructure, but the general political environment is muting progress in the site selection process launched at the start of the year
  • Switzerland continues investigatory borehole drilling
  • Czech Republic raises public awareness of geological disposal with multiple articles in the media looking at the Finnish example.

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.

United States

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).

Asia

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.

Middle East

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.

Australia

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.

Canada

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.

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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:

Europe

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.

United States

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.

Asia

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.

Canada

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.

Australia

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.

Africa

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.

Nuclear Waste Report 2019 highlights complexity

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Co-ordinated by a Green Party ex-MEP, this newly-published report is a thoughtful contribution from an anti-nuclear perspective.

A majority of the authors of The World Nuclear Waste Report 2019: Focus Europe support geological disposal, but they understandably demand a much more open public debate, and continued scientific review.

What makes the Report interesting within the UK national context is that anti-nuclear campaigners here have previously linked the disposal of radwaste with the nuclear new build debate. But this detailed international report separates out the issues related to the management and disposal of radioactive waste, and identifies the significant ethical, environmental and economic matters that need to be addressed in their own right.

GDFWatch argues that whether we should build new nuclear power plants is a perfectly legitimate public debate, but that that debate should not distract us from addressing the issues of how we manage the waste we already have, and would continue to have, regardless of whether the UK unilaterally disarms its nuclear arsenal and/or shuts down its nuclear energy sector.

The World Nuclear Waste Report provides substantial international data on issues which GDFWatch has been raising in the UK, eg:

  • it will be many decades before repositories are operational, but there are significant environmental and cost issues with maintaining surface interim stores over the long term (with the current furore over the Runit facility in the Marshall Islands an exemplar of how easy it is for a society to ‘forget’ about an “interim” surface store built before climate change was a pressing global threat)
  • the need for a changed, collaborative, careful approach to assessing potential sites, which engages meaningfully with local communities and the wider public

In every country, the Report says, “addressing the task of safely managing and disposing of our radioactive waste demands from society, politicians, citizens, science and industry to be more open and patient, money, and willing to admit mistakes and failures and to rethink approaches and strategies.” In the UK, the new Working With Communities site search and selection process opens the door to tackling this in such a constructive way.

The UK’s new consent-based siting process may eventually fail, but there are commitments to changing the way in which government and nuclear agencies interact with communities, to providing adequate engagement funding to support communities’ involvement, and to a more structured approach to intergenerational planning. GDFWatch strongly believes there is not only the opportunity to resolve our radwaste problem, but also support local democratic and social infrastructure reforms that empower local people’s participation and role in decision-making.

The World Nuclear Waste Report is critical of the lack of standardised comparative international data — from how waste volumes are calculated, to how waste is classified. Also, that no country has fully-costed the decommissioning of its facilities, or the management and eventual disposal of its radioactive waste. The Report also claims there is too little research into the human health impacts of radiation.

However, the Report’s view that the radioactive waste management and disposal process “must always be focused on solutions” is to be welcomed. As the author notes: We can phase out nuclear power, but we cannot phase out the nuclear waste and its eternal risks.

What we can all agree upon, is the Report’s observation that “deep geological disposal is one of the most ambitious and most difficult tasks on earth”. Delightfully understated!

*UPDATE* An alarm call: surface storage versus geological disposal of radioactive waste

i Nov 17th 1 Comment by

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.

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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.