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.
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ….
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.
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:
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!
A follow-up in depth analysis by the Los Angeles Times has generated subsequent media coverage across the world.
While disavowing any responsibility or accountability for the radioactive waste leftover from US nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific, the Trump Administration did get angry at anti-US graffiti painted on the “interim” storage facility.
The Marshall Islands are considering legal action, as rising sea levels caused by climate change (unpredicted when the facility was built half a century ago) threaten a significant radioactive leak on and around Runit atoll.
In a separate but parallel story, French Polynesia is also considering legal action against France for its failure to properly manage radioactive waste left over from French nuclear bomb tests in the 1960 and 70s.
See original news below, as UN Sec General raises first alarm.
The United Nations Secretary General’s recent warning about a South Pacific interim radioactive waste storage facility leaking radiation is perhaps the loudest alarm call yet against keeping such wastes on the surface of the planet, when we could be more safely disposing of the waste deep underground.
Many environmentalists are opposed to geological disposal because we cannot be sure that deep geological disposal will isolate and contain radioactive waste for millennia. They argue that we should keep the waste in monitored surface facilities until a better alternative solution is found.
While it is true that scientists cannot offer a 100% guarantee for the next million years when burying radioactive waste deep underground, the South Pacific facility highlighted by the UN Secretary General is evidence that there is practically a 100% certainty of a dangerous radiation leak somewhere on the planet during that time if we keep the waste on the surface for a prolonged period.
It is a question of risk management. Deep geological disposal reduces risk to minimal proportions, and scientists can provide safety assessments with confidence for at least the first few centuries. Such high levels of surety are possible because the underground environment has not changed in billions or millions of years and will not be affected by future surface climate change or human activity.
However, the same levels of surety are not possible when it comes to the stability of the surface environment and human society over the coming centuries — indeed, as evidenced by the radiation leak from this facility, climate and human society changes have already adversely affected the surface environment, in just 60 years!
If something is going to go wrong (and experience suggests we should be cautious and prepare accordingly) we have a simple choice: do we want a dangerous radiation leak to happen on the surface where we all live, or in a contained space isolated deep beneath the surface far away from humans and the surface environment?
We have already seen this risk choice in action. In 2014 a package leaked radioactivity in the US’ deep geological repository. The repository needed to be shut for four years, but all the harmful radiation was kept isolated 600m below the surface and did not pose a risk to people living at the surface. After investigation, it was discovered that the package had only recently been placed underground. The package had been a hidden ticking time bomb, and fortunately for everyone it went off deep underground and out of harm’s way. Had it ruptured while on the surface, the human and environmental consequences could have been catastrophic.
Then in 2018, radioactive waste which had been stored on the surface for 60 years at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) had to be moved into new packages, as the original packaging was decaying and becoming unsafe. During this repackaging process the old canister ruptured, releasing radioactivity. Fortunately, again, there was no risk to local people. If the US had a permanent geological repository, the waste could have been moved underground and no further repackaging may have been required. However, the longer we retain surface storage, the more often we will have to remove radioactive waste from ageing and decaying canisters and place it in new, safer packages. Every time we open an old package we risk opening pandora’s box — and there are hundreds of thousands of such packages around the world. Can we be 100% certain that for each of the millions of times that this will need to be done all over the world over the next few centuries that this won’t result in at least one mistake or accident?
In the first incident we were protected because the incident happened underground (though could have happened on the surface). In the second, safety standards protected us this time, but we cannot give a 100% public safety guarantee for the millions of times in the future when we will have to repackage waste in order to keep it on the surface.
The nuclear sector will, rightly, point out the safety standards and procedures that they now have in place internationally to make interim surface storage safe. The South Pacific facility was built in the 1960s, when radioactive waste technology and science was in its infancy — and when our forefathers did not give the attention to effective radioactive waste management and disposal that we now do. But rising sea levels and a largely forgotten facility in a distant unpopulated atoll show what can happen even over a relatively short period of time as climate changes and human society errs.
There is no present and immediate danger from interim surface stores. They are, to all intents and purposes, safe. But they are not a long-term solution when faced with the inevitable ice ages that are coming, and the fragility of human society. With Brexit, the UK has no idea what the next 6 months will hold, let alone the next 6, 60 or 600 years. Rocks at depth evidentially provide a more stable and reliable protective environment over the long-term than mercurial human society.
For all the concerns that some environmentalists have about geological disposal, compared to keeping radioactive waste on the surface indefinitely, burying it as far away from the surface as possible seems a much less risky proposition in every scenario. More than that, it also means that this generation takes appropriate responsibility for its actions/mess rather than leaving future generations to pick up the tab for our poor behaviours.
An important, and a novel idea for the nuclear sector, on community engagement can be found deep within a weighty tome on risk-assessed decision-making produced by the US independent watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It speaks directly to what is required for the UK GDF siting process.
The GAO performs a similar function as the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO). It’s recently published Environmental Liabilities report is critical of the US’ Department of Energy (DoE) for still failing to introduce risk-informed decision-making into its environmental cleanup plans. With a US$600 billion liability, which is ever-rising, the GAO believes the DoE is not doing enough to account for human health and environmental risks within a finite budget.
More importantly from our perspective, is a fascinating section on community engagement and involvement in the decision-making process. This is not just a US issue, but is relevant to every nuclear agency across the world. And is particularly relevant in the UK, in relation to the formation of Community Partnerships and how decisions are taken in evaluating and determining a potential GDF site.
The GAO make clear that there will always be differing opinions within local communities, and between different stakeholder groups. Currently, nuclear agencies make a decision and then try to get support for that decision. This is fraught with difficulties, polarises and generally antagonises everyone, and can lead to lengthy (and costly) legal and appeals processes.
The GAO’s ‘radical’ idea is to engage communities and stakeholders in co-designing a decision-making framework. This recognises that not everyone is going to like the final decision, but if the process for arriving at that decision has been discussed and agreed in advance by all the key parties, there will be more legitimacy in the outcome. The GAO also notes that decisions often require a high-degree of specialised knowledge, and can’t easily be left to those with limited technical understanding. And that is the reason why a decision-making framework that is widely accepted across the stakeholder spectrum is required.
Key points the GAO makes include:
With complex issues, generating conflicting opinions and emotions, it is not always possible to seek consensus for every decision. We can only resolve this problem through creating a decision-making process which commands widespread legitimacy.
In the UK GDF siting process context, this suggests that RWM should not develop a community-based decision-making framework on their own, and then try to get everyone to agree to it. They should start discussions with the community sector on jointly developing a decision-making framework that commands a high degree of ‘legitimacy’, so that decisions which are eventually made will stand public and critical scrutiny.
This is how democracy works. We set up rules within which we delegate decision-making. In the UK there is a widespread view that our democratic processes at every level are failing us and need renewal. As GDFWatch has previously argued, the GDF consent-based site selection process could not only deliver a repository, but also help reform our political and social decision-making processes. The GAO model offers RWM and the UK a credible way forward to achieving this.
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:
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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.