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.
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.
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.
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.
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 reports from almost 90 countries, including: Abu Dhabi, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Holland, Honduras, Hungary, India, Ireland, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Moldova, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, UAE, UK, USA, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Wales and Zambia.
Currently we can only source English-language stories, but if anyone discovers a news story, especially if it’s not in English, please send to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This resource will be updated regularly, and we’ll alert everyone when new content is available. There are now thousands of articles to review, from local and online media through to internationally-regarded titles such as Time Magazine, Forbes, Nature, NY Times, The Economist, Washington Post, etc.
You can visit the current articles page here.
For articles from January – March 2019, please click on this link to our Jan – Mar 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.
With Britain in sensitive Brexit discussions about the Irish border ‘backstop’, the GDF may have inadvertently become a new diplomatic point of contention between the two countries.
This is one of several running stories in the UK media this week, that underline the complexities and sensitivities of finding a site for a geological disposal facility:
There is a common thread running through these stories, of people rushing to judgement and hyperbole before checking their facts. For example, the reaction in Northern Ireland was driven by an otherwise-innocuous RWM information video describing geological features of the County Armagh area. There are similar short videos for every region of England, Wales and N Ireland.
A local newspaper decided to fact-check the allegations that the British government was considering an area near Newry for nuclear waste disposal. The newspaper concluded that while the claims have elements of truth, they also have elements of falsehood, saying: “Preliminary work has been carried out to see if the site in Northern Ireland could work, but we are far, far away from a GDF in the North being a reality given how much would have to happen before it could be built.”
This, more nuanced view, was also expressed by an Irish politician living just across the border. Fine Gael councillor for Dundalk, John McGahon, said the initial report was likely nothing more than a “fishing expedition”, that the probability of any plan being approved was “extremely remote”, that it was important politicians on both sides of the Border were not “asleep on the issue”, but equally that local representatives did not engage in “scaremongering”.
The reactions, particularly in Wales and in N Ireland, were predictable, and are wholly understandable, particularly in the context of nationalist politics. However, they also underline some other common themes underpinning media coverage and political reaction, eg:
This week has seen the first salvos in what will become a prolonged period of media, public and political discussion. The initial media and political reaction was to be expected. It will now be interesting to see how RWM accommodates anticipatable reactions and moves forward to construct a more positive environment in which to nurture informed public debate.
A full list of UK media articles can be found in our international news pages.
Bizarrely, an obscure government consultation may hold the key to advancing true Localism. Odd as it may sound, but nuclear waste management policy could be a vehicle for turning recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Localism into reality, by supporting the creation of a radical new democratic model that empowers communities to shape their own future.
Localism & WWC: the parallels
Parallels between the Localism Commission’s Report and the ‘Working With Communities’ (WWC) consultation document are not immediately obvious. That’s not surprising: they may have been published in the same week, but the two documents come from very different worlds. However, take a closer look, and if you try to “translate” the WWC text into the language of localism, it becomes clearer that while the documents started in different places, they’ve arrived at very similar destinations.
Locality Chief Executive Tony Armstrong recently said,”power starts with people. It lies in our communities. The task of the political system and our local leaders is to harness this power through ongoing relationships, engagement and co-creation.” Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of Power to Change added, “localism should enable local solutions through partnership and collaboration around place.” These sentiments, though articulated differently in the WWC document, are central to its proposals.
The Community’s Consent: a radical solution
They are central because government needs a community’s ‘consent’ in order to construct the waste repository. It cannot simply just impose a solution, it needs to negotiate. Previous attempts to find a consenting community have foundered on the flaws of local authority and short-term decision-making. So government has been fundamentally reassessing what it needs to do to gain a community’s ‘consent’. They’ve reached a radical conclusion: you need to work collaboratively in equal partnership with the community, in a process that works alongside of, but is independent from, local authority governance.
The WWC proposals may have accidentally stumbled into a reimagining of localism, but they certainly give substance to what Lord Bob Kerslake calls “the four domains of localism”: institutions, powers, relationships, and community capacity.
Institutionally, the WWC proposes that the key decision-making body would be a ‘Community Partnership’. Membership, roles, responsibilities, powers, and dispute resolution would be set out in a ‘Community Agreement’. Negotiations for this Agreement would necessarily involve discussing a rebalanced relationship between local authorities and the affected community. The Agreement would also set out how the wider community engaged and participated in the decision-making process.
More importantly, the WWC proposals recognise the critical requirement to build community capacity. Community participation and engagement costs would be borne by government, with the community able to fashion how their capacity needs were met. And there would be “significant” additional short and long-term funding to help the community invest in and realise it’s ambitions.
A localism laboratory?
The reasons why the waste repository may never be built in a particular community are legion. It might be decades before a final decision could even be made. But during those years, the WWC proposals, if implemented, could be used as a ‘localism laboratory’, testing ideas and learning lessons that could be applied more widely, to create case studies that showcase the effectiveness of community-led local democracy.
Much depends now, given other pressures, on whether the community sector has the capacity to assess this unexpected opportunity. From a localism perspective, the WWC proposals are ‘raw’ and do need informed shaping while they’re still out for consultation. Supporting the interpretation and implementation of the proposals will also be welcome, especially by those communities already with an interest in entering the process. Because those communities which do become involved will need the counsel and support of the wider sector, to help protect and promote their interests as the terms of this new and unique community partnership model are bartered and rolled-out. The subsequent experience of operating the process would undoubtedly help inform and advance the wider localism agenda in very practical ways.
Better ideas: a localism legacy?
The Localism Commission concluded that “we need radical action to strengthen our local institutions; devolve tangible power resources and control to communities; ensure equality in community participation; and deliver change in local government behaviour and practice to enable local initiatives to thrive.” Reading through the WWC proposals with a localism lens, you can begin to see the possibility of achieving those objectives.
The Commission observed that until the Brexit furore settles down, there is little expectation of the localism agenda being advanced. In the absence of any immediate alternatives, the WWC proposals may merit a look. If you want to find out more about the WWC proposals, open public workshops are being held around the country in February and March. These may be a helpful starting point for considering how the WWC proposals can be developed. Even if we don’t ultimately solve our nuclear waste problem, on the journey there we might still create a localism legacy.
As BEIS and RWM develop a consent-based community partnership framework within the context of radioactive waste management policy, there is a danger of a wheel being reinvented. There are already multiple initiatives, funded and led by other Whitehall Departments, on enhancing local democracy and increasing community involvement in planning local, sustainable well-being and wealth creation.
We have previously looked at how the Working With Communities policy dovetails with the work of a wide range of local government and civil society organisations, eg:
More recently the New Local Government Network (NLGN) supported by Local Trust published a report based on research about the experiences of residents, volunteers, councillors and officers in Big Local areas. The report provides new insight into how the relationship between the citizen and the state can be recalibrated in practice — shifting away from a traditional paternalistic role with the council as provider and community as recipient, to one which involves communities themselves playing a more active role. Such analysis is at the heart of the GDF siting process and Working With Communities policy.
The research summarises five core principles in establishing effective partnerships with communities:
These principles are at the very heart of the GDF Working With Communities policy. As RWM interprets and implements policy and turns it into a practical and workable framework, it needs to engage with and embrace the skills, knowledge and ambitions of those involved in advancing local democracy, local wealth creation, and local well-being.
The problem for the community sector, is that many of these initiatives stall through lack of funding. The Government have committed to funding the GDF community partnership programme. This means the GDF programme could become a local democracy laboratory, funding activities from which learning could be applied to other social and policy contexts.
Finding a GDF site depends on suitable geology and a willing community. There is a risk that by not fully embracing what is already happening on the ground in communities, with a siting process led by technical and procedural considerations rather than community needs and aspirations, that a golden opportunity is missed not only to resolve a major environmental problem (radioactive waste) but also to create a wider socioeconomic and democratic legacy.
The role of local authorities, and the relationship with a Community Partnership, are central to the GDF siting process. The issues at stake were brought under the spotlight this week with the publication of a report and a day-long conference co-produced by the Local Government Association (LGA) and National Association of Local Councils (NALC).
The report is a ‘must-read’ for anyone involved or interested in the GDF siting process. As BEIS and the nuclear sector have wrestled with the issues, the community and local government sectors have been busy finding solutions. But neither side has yet worked closely with the other. That must be remedied.
More importantly, Ministers are inclined to introduce a local authority ‘veto’ over the GDF siting process, but this report makes clear such a power should not be needed nor would it be helpful.
From a GDF siting perspective, the LGA/NALC Report makes some very pertinent points, eg:
The similarity in language and sentiment between this report and the Working With Communities consultation document is striking. And while nobody would suggest the world of local governance is perfect, this activity to improve how communities and local government work better together does provide a framework for the GDF siting process to work through, rather than attempt to reinvent.
But it is just as important for the civil society and local government sectors to understand how the GDF siting process may provide the funding and impetus to deliver many of their ambitions and objectives. GDFWatch has previously cited these opportunities in our analysis of how the GDF siting process might help deliver the recommendations of the Localism Commission.
There have been examples this week of work underway in the civil society and trades union sectors which not only would the GDF siting process benefit from by embracing, but also indicate how the GDF siting process might help those sectors realise their ambitions, eg:
Civil Society Strategy
The Government’s consultation on civil society strategy closed this week. In a joint letter to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which ran the consultation, a group of charities called on the government to seize the opportunity to transform the government’s relationship with the sector, saying: “It is critical that the strategy focuses on how government can not only better enable the sector, but also provide a blueprint for long-lasting engagement. It should not be focused on what government thinks the sector should do; this is for the sector to determine with their beneficiaries. Instead, the strategy should set out how the government can support and enable civil society to achieve its potential.” The letter also called for both sides to “move beyond transactional relationships between the sector and the government” and instead work to “build understanding, trust and respect, to inform better decision-making and to ensure people can access the support they need”.
How far the Government will heed this advice is yet to be seen, but again there is a clear resonance between the aspirations and ambitions of the civil society sector and the principles underpinning the GDF siting process. This alignment has not yet been fully explored by either side.
Locality: How to establish a neighbourhood planning forum
Locality have published a toolkit to help communities develop their own neighbourhood development plan. These plans are at the core of community development and will be in the foundations of any socioeconomic plans developed in partnership between the GDF delivery body and a community considering hosting a GDF.
House of Lords set up Select Committee to consider the Rural Economy
The House of Lords has set up an ad hoc Select Committee to consider and report on the Rural Economy. The GDF is likely to be one of Europe’s (let alone Britain’s) largest infrastructure and construction projects. It will have a profound long-term impact on the host area’s economy. It will potentially have a greater impact if the host community is in a rural area.
CLES and new Community Wealth Building Unit
The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) is the UK’s leading, independent think and do tank realising progressive economics for people and place. This week it was announced that they would be advising a new Community Wealth Building Unit that has been established bringing together councillors, unions, think tanks, and independent experts to stimulate sustainable economic community development. Given the GDF’s potential long-term impact on local and regional economies, there is much to share and learn from each other.
ETUC Report on Climate Change Transition
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) this week produced a report highlighting the role Trades Unions can play in helping communities transition their economies. Although the report is focused on the socioeconomic impact of changes required to mitigate climate change, the issues are directly relevant to the GDF siting process in how Trades Unions can help as communities transform their economy and society in a “just” way that more equitably manages the process of change.
Interim Report of the Raynsford Review of Planning in England
Ex-Housing Minister Nick Raynsford led a review commissioned by the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA). An interim report was published this week, and amongst its recommendations to government were to regulate development based on its potential for achieving ‘social, economic and cultural wellbeing’ and to set a legal obligation to plan for the needs of future generations. Intergenerational equity and long-term community well-being development are at the core of the GDF siting process. The Raynsford Report is now seeking further public response to its recommendations, and the GDF delivery body may well have views on future planning legislation.
Entering into the geological disposal process seems like a voyage into the unknown. The complexity and length of the process itself can be a barrier to entry for most communities. However, the recent Environmental Court Hearings in Sweden, and testimony from people involved in the Swedish process provide helpful guidance for UK communities contemplating the journey.
The Swedish Court Hearings are the culmination of a journey which has taken more than thirty years. The Environmental Court didn’t even exist when the municipality of Östhammar first put itself forward for consideration to host Sweden’s geological disposal facility (GDF). And much else has changed over the period: from the people who now live in Östhammar; to the state of scientific knowledge; to the public’s expectation of, and the laws governing, protection of the environment.
So how do the Environmental Court Hearings and the experience of those involved in the Swedish GDF process help UK communities begin to understand the journey ahead of them?
Firstly, the Court Hearings provide a clear ‘destination point’. The voyage is not into the unknown. After three decades of geological analysis, scientific data gathering, developing technical plans, environmental impact assessments, and dealing with community concerns and aspirations, all of the information is being independently reviewed before Sweden can move on to the next stage of the process – securing local community consent.
The Swedish GDF legal process is of course different to the UK, but the underlying principles are the same. At some point in the future, all of the information will have to be reviewed before a UK community is asked to make an informed decision on whether it wants to proceed. And a community can walk away, without any obligation, at any stage before this point.
Secondly, the experience of those who’ve long participated in the Swedish GDF process offers insight and advice on the journey for those in Britain following their path. It is the testimony of ordinary people tackling an extraordinary issue. Residents, local politicians, environmentalists, and the industry offer their thoughts below. Common themes appear: the need to build trust; an ever-changing world; the importance of openness and honesty; satisfactorily answering every technical and community question before moving to the next stage.
First elected to the local council twenty years ago, Jacob Spangenberg has been Mayor of Östhammar since 2006. Over that time he estimates half the population has changed through death, birth and migration, and notes that very few elected councillors remain from when Östhammar first entered into the GDF process.
“Retaining awareness in the community has not been easy”, he says. “There are long periods, when research and analysis is taking place, when there is little to talk about. Three-year gaps between updates on the project’s progress were the norm.”
But he praises the work of the Regulators and SKB (the Swedish GDF developer) in earning the community’s trust and helping to sustain the community’s engagement with the process, saying: “The Regulators provided neutral advice and information, and took time to regularly speak with community representatives. SKB learned lessons about listening to community concerns, and actively engaged with environmentalists and other opponents, treating their worries with respect.”
Honesty and openness were fundamental to sustaining community support. Spangenberg says everyone knew where everyone stood, and that even if you disagreed there was never any feeling of hidden agendas. He sums up his advice to others: “ask every question because nothing can happen until every question you have asked has been answered to your satisfaction.”
The GDF process in Östhammar has spanned Birgitta Söderberg’s teaching career. When it started she was a young teacher who held strong anti-nuclear opinions. But as she progressed to being Headteacher, and now advising the council on future education services, she says the honesty of the discussions now mean she believes the facility can be built safely and contribute to Östhammar’s community growth and development.
“Chernobyl was a defining moment. We were very affected, even having to ban outside picnics that summer. But it prompted a debate in schools which started to change opinions. If we have waste, we need to keep it safe. Though we were clear from the start, this should only be Sweden’s waste, not anybody else’s.”
Critical to building her trust and providing reassurance has been the honesty of all involved, even shaping how she votes at election time: “People increasingly vote for personality over political party. How someone managed questions about the GDF issue helped determine whether I trusted and respected them.”
Looking ahead to the future Söderberg believes the GDF will play a significant role in helping support expansion of educational provision in Östhammar: “More young people are staying in Östhammar because they can get the qualifications they need, and increasingly there is skilled work available locally. Better educational services will also make it easier to attract inward investment and skilled workers from outside.”
Johan Swahn still has major reservations about the safety of the proposed GDF, but recognises that the process for deciding whether to proceed has been fair, with everyone afforded the opportunity to express their concerns.
Swahn leads MKG, an NGO focused solely on radioactive waste, which is publicly-funded to ensure there is an independent community voice in the GDF process. MKG still has major concerns about the long-term safety of copper canisters and questions their reliability to isolate waste for over 100,000 years. The organisation has successfully shaped the debate and influenced how the process has evolved, with Swahn mentioning community concerns about nature: “SKB were initially focused purely on geology and nuclear waste safety, with no regard to habitat and species protection. This was an issue of great local importance, and we ensured it became integral to the wider GDF process.”
During the decades since the process in Östhammar started, Swahn points out that national environmental protection attitudes, expectations and legislation changed significantly. He was initially concerned that the Environmental Court might be shackled by other regulators, and be a mere rubber stamp for the GDF. However, experience has proved otherwise: “The Court has not only proved its technical competence, but has challenged the regulators on their approach. The Hearings were extended, and the Court went out of its way to ensure every voice that wanted to speak was heard.”
In offering advice to other communities, Swahn also stresses that the process is not just about geology and safe storage of nuclear waste, but that broader community concerns need to be addressed: “The impact of construction vehicles on local roads, noise pollution, the transport of nuclear waste, as well as protecting the local wildlife and environment are all factors that need to be properly considered. It is important that ordinary day-to-day impacts on the lives of local people are taken into account as well as the long-term safety of the stored waste.”
The Industry Rep
The long, slow GDF process has also had profound impacts on the developer. Apart from the natural turnover of staff any organisation would have over 30 years, Erik Setzman of SKB says planned change management has been critical to ensuring the company was responsive to the needs of local communities:
“At its core this is an engineering and nuclear waste management project, but that doesn’t mean we’ve always been led by engineers and nuclear experts. Developing relationships with communities has meant that over time we’ve had to prioritise resources and recruit senior managers with other skillsets.”
Setzman says SKB learned from early mistakes: “It is important to give communities access to experts. But not every expert should be exposed to a community. It takes particular skill not to come over as arrogant. Building trust requires listening, and then responding sympathetically to community concerns. Even if the issue seemed tangential to the core project, if it concerned the local community, the issue had to be dealt with.”
The project also survived the decades, according to Setzman, because there was a stable long-term national political commitment and financial platform to support community engagement and the necessary detailed technical analysis of the proposed site. He notes that at the recent Court Hearings, no new issues or questions were raised: “It is not surprising that no new issues arose. We’ve had over thirty years of open dialogue and analysis. Everything that needed to be asked had been answered. But it was only at this point that you could start seeking the necessary permissions to proceed to construction.”
Another Resident: The Urban Planner
Torsten Blomé has only recently moved his young family to Östhammar. He knew about the GDF, and it was one of the factors that made the move exciting. Although he has not personally participated in a process which started before he was born, his new job depends on him understanding how Östhammar has changed over the past decades as he helps plan for its future.
Historically Östhammar was an isolated rural community, with educational, employment and wealth indicators below the Swedish average. That has changed. The Forsmark nuclear plant and other factors have contributed, but even the possibility of hosting the GDF has also given the community leverage to secure important infrastructure investment, as Blomé notes:
“The new Route288 has improved road connectivity with Stockholm, opening up new economic opportunities. Not only does it support the growth in tourism – about half the houses in Östhammar are now summer homes owned by people from Stockholm and elsewhere – but we are also diversifying the local economy and attracting interest from overseas investors.”
Such growth has increased land and property values, but with an expanding and increasingly skilled and better-paid community (unemployment is now half the Swedish national average) Blomé is confident about the future: “Increasing revenues will allow us to invest in a range of public services, particularly in education, so that we can create a community which attracts, retains and sustains people and high-skilled, better paid jobs.”
UK communities contemplating a GDF journey can turn to friendly and informed independent sources for advice on the voyage ahead. These ‘experts’ need not be scientists or consultants, they could just be ordinary people like yourselves.