A community’s frustration at not being allowed to even consider hosting a geological repository (a GDF) is amply demonstrated in this interview on Nevada Public Radio.
Dan Schinhofen is vice chairman of the Nye County Commission. It is his community which would host the US’ geological disposal facility at the proposed Yucca Mountain site. He and his fellow residents are angry that their community’s concerns, aspirations and interests are being ignored by a distant urban-based political and commercial elite.
During the interview he makes the following key points:
The written article accompanying the audio interview can be read here.
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.
In the next few weeks GDFWatch will be unveiling a range of consultancy and other services. The services we will offer are built on the feedback we got from you in July’s stakeholder survey.
Supporting communities and local authorities: consultancy services
The GDF siting process is novel and untested. The GDFWatch team has a wealth of experience uniquely gained in the development and interpretation of that siting process.
We can help communities and local authorities get to grips with this new system, so that you are actively driving discussions with RWM, equipped to ensure your interests are not just being protected but are being advanced.
We provide access to a wide range of technical/scientific, socioeconomic, environmental, land-use planning, public consultation, community engagement, stakeholder management, and communications expertise. These skills and knowledge will not only help you set up the process in a way which works best for your community, but also offer you independent expert counsel as the process progresses.
News & Information services
Geological disposal is a global issue requiring local solutions. Access to the latest information will be vital in delivering a balanced and informed debate. GDFWatch’s current plans include:
A key and recurring theme from the stakeholder survey was the need for ‘trust’. We absolutely understand this. It’s not just enough to be ‘independent’ – we must be seen to be independent.
There will be times when funding comes from nuclear sector or other vested interests. Each case will be assessed on its own merits, and a full declaration publicly made. People can then make their own judgement on the veracity of the information or independence of any service being provided.
The income generated from the services we provide will help sustain the free independent services that will be an important resource for communities and individuals at all stages in siting process discussions.
If you would like to find out more, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07900 243007.
The publication of the tailored review on the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) sets out some revised principles for the Committee’s future role.
While the review says that the Committee’s role and objectives needs updating, and that these should be set out in a new framework, the Government says little about what that role might actually be. However, one specific area of activity under review is the extent to which, and on what basis, CoRWM more actively participates in public and community engagement.
The July appointment of Sir Nigel Thrift as CoRWM’s new Chair underlines the Government’s awareness of the need to shift priority as the siting process relaunches. Sir Nigel is a human geographer, a social scientist. This is a marked shift from CoRWM’s historic technical/scientific foundations, and a recognition that the issues are increasingly social rather than technical – civics not science.
The minutes from CoRWM’s recent public plenary sessions indicate that the Committee itself has been examining whether and how it should become more active and more visible. Those who gave evidence to the Committee, including GDFWatch, were in agreement that a revamped CoRWM could have a critical role in building public trust in geological disposal and the siting process.
The tailored review says conclusions on CoRWM’s engagement role and activities will be progressed during December. This short timescale suggests that the Government already has an outline plan. In a tight fiscal environment, even if BEIS wanted a much-expanded role for CoRWM, the Department may not have the funds for anything other than a passive role.
However, given the wider civil society sector’s concern that RWM may not be viewed as a ‘neutral player’, there may be value in a body such as CoRWM filling the engagement void. The Chief Executive of a large national community-based organisation noted that even if RWM employed a small army of “independent” facilitators, they would still be seen as having an ‘agenda’ and that a community would most likely treat the relationship as ‘adversarial’ from the start. This is a difficult foundation from which to build trust.
But CoRWM might be able to provide an effective bridge to trust-buiding, especially in the early stages of public and community discussion. Whether CoRWM is staffed-up, or funds a partnership with civil society organisations, is less important than ensuring the initial awareness-building programme delivers not just increased public understanding, but confidence in geological disposal and the siting process.
While experience normally dictates against optimism, there are sufficient signs that the Government recognises the need for a revised role for CoRWM. We can only hope Ministers hear the fears of the civil society sector and equip the Committee to be an active and effective trust-building bridge with communities.
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.
There is overwhelming local support for Sweden’s planned geological disposal facility (GDF). Three out of four residents in the host community of Östhammar are in favour of the project.
The level of local public support for the project was revealed in the annual opinion poll conducted in the Östhammar Municipality on behalf of the Swedish GDF delivery body, SKB.
SKB measures public opinion in the community every year. It is the kind of on-going measurement of local opinion that will be required in the UK when communities here are actively engaged in discussions about hosting a GDF.
In the Swedish poll, based on 800 telephone interviews, 77 percent of the respondents in Östhammar said that they were “completely in favour” or “in favour” of plans to build the final repository for radioactive waste in their community. SKB’s CEO Eva Halldén also pointed out the sustained level of support, saying: “What is particularly gratifying is that the high figures are so stable over time.”
The opinion poll also found a high level of confidence in SKB, with 76 percent of local respondents stating that they have a “very high” or “rather high” level of confidence in the company.
Such weight of local community support is despite the uncertainty created by Sweden’s Environmental Court decision earlier this year, when the Court expressed concerns about the long-term safety of the copper canisters in which waste is placed.
The regulatory approval and licensing process continues to move forward, and the Swedish Government has now formally asked SKB to respond, by early 2019, to questions raised by the Environmental Court.
But before the Swedish Government comes to a decision, local people will be consulted in a referendum. This is because the community has the right of veto on whether to proceed or not — very similar to the “Test of Public Support” proposed in the UK.
As the nuclear industry wrestles with how it can communicate better with the wider public, a recent workshop in Vienna may one day be looked back upon as a seminal moment of change.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) invited mayors and municipal leaders from around the world to explain how the nuclear sector and its activities are viewed from a community perspective, and what might be done by governments and the nuclear sector to better address public concerns, for example when seeking a site for a geological repository – concerns that if not addressed can block a repository programme.
The issues raised at the Vienna workshop point to the need for further continued change in the way in which the nuclear sector engages with the wider public. Examples of some innovative and productive industry-community collaborations were presented at the workshop. Despite the progress of recent years, mayors still felt more could be done to more openly engage with communities – well-intentioned nuclear experts still too often try and resolve a problem just amongst themselves. Such an approach is akin to being lost with no roadmap, but not wanting to ask local people for directions.
There is no satnav for managing public sentiment. Local people are the best guides. Ask us, and we can help — that was the unified underlying key message from mayors and municipalities from around the world at the Vienna workshop. Municipalities are the first tier of democratic community representation, and have planning and other legal authorities which can thwart or assist a nuclear project. As such, they represent the most obvious initial partner for the nuclear sector to learn how to change interactions with the public.
Communication is not the same as Dialogue
“Please talk with us, not at us” was a core plea from mayors. Mayors with many years of experience engaging with the nuclear sector feel that the industry still sees the provision of technical and safety information as communication and engagement. Providing such information is a necessary but is not a sufficient condition for successful community engagement.
The industry enthusiastically imparts technical and safety information to communities, but most municipalities still feel that it rarely actually listens to the community and its concerns – most of which are not technical or scientific. Communication is often perceived by mayors as a ‘one-way’ discussion, and not a two-way dialogue.
Unsurprisingly, government, politicians and the nuclear sector are at the bottom end of the ‘trust hierarchy’ in every country. This is not just an emotional response. There is basis in fact for this trust deficit. There are no shortage of examples from around the world of historic secrecy, cover ups and past bad behaviours by the nuclear and governmental sectors which justifiably drive public distrust.
Building trust is based on deeds, not words. It is also a two-way process. The nuclear sector needs to learn to trust municipalities, and to support the growth of a community’s own ability to be a responsible and equal partner in the development of any nuclear project or programme.
Empowerment & Independence
Engaging with the nuclear sector can be overwhelming for municipalities. The balance of knowledge, authority and power is weighted against local communities. This sense of inequity is not the best foundation to build a constructive relationship.
Municipalities need the capacity and capability to defend and promote their community’s interests, able to interrogate technical data, and feel confident that they are engaging with the nuclear sector on a more equitable basis.
Failure to support the community’s own independent capability to engage could potentially cost a nuclear project more money and take more time – many municipalities have legal powers that can be used to block or slow down projects. Investing in a community, so that it can acquire skills and expertise that make it feel it can engage on a fair basis, may be the most cost-effective and rational approach.
The recent workshop is thought to be the largest event to which the IAEA has invited mayors and municipalities into its Vienna hub, seeking their insight into some of the nuclear industry’s most difficult issues. It’s rarity generated some local media and some social media coverage.
A bit like Starfleet Academy from Star Trek, the IAEA’s HQ is a place where people from all cultures and countries come together to ensure the greatest wisdom is brought to bear in resolving nuclear technology issues. It is an admirable example of how humankind can co-operate as one.
We hope the IAEA continues to proactively engage with municipal audiences, as they represent voices which are too often unheard, but can provide much wisdom in helping to resolve nuclear’s non-technological issues. As one mayor said in Vienna, “if you want to know what people want, just go and ask them” – time perhaps for the nuclear sector to follow municipalities’ sage advice.
It has been over 10 years, 4 Prime Ministers, and 5 Administrations since the original Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) recommended geological disposal.
In that period successive Governments of all Parties have recommitted to geological disposal. With the recent publication of position papers updating their advice on a range of key issues, the latest CoRWM have also reaffirmed their expert opinion that geological disposal remains the best available way to dispose of higher-activity radioactive waste.
Four new papers have been issued in response to specific concerns raised in stakeholder submissions to the public consultations earlier this year on the GDF draft National Policy Statement (NPS) and the Working With Communities siting policy:
Several replies to the consultations advocated continued interim surface storage rather than disposal in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). CoRWM say nothing has changed in the past decade to alter their opinion that interim surface storage is not a viable long-term solution. However, they remain committed to closely monitoring international scientific developments in the event better alternative options become available.
Some stakeholders raised concerns that there were technical issues which could not yet be addressed but that could lead to safety failures in the future. CoRWM recognises the legitimacy of these concerns, saying there are a considerable number of technical issues which must be satisfied before a GDF could be licensed. These will be picked up by the regulators, who would not approve a GDF until these matters were resolved. CoRWM will continue to ensure that such concerns are ‘mapped’ into the GDF safety assessment and safety case and successfully resolved.
There continues to be a view amongst some stakeholders that we should be looking for the “best” geology. CoRWM believes this would compromise the primacy of ‘community consent’, and that scientifically no such thing as ‘the best’ geology exists. As is exampled around the world, there are different geological conditions in which a GDF can be safely built.
In the lengthiest of the papers, CoRWM directly addresses public concern about the transportation of radioactive waste. The Committee agrees that transport should be minimised as far as possible, but there are other risks and issues which need to be taken into account, and they note that radioactive waste has been transported around the country on a regular basis for decades without incident. CoRWM recognises public concern, and believes that these concerns need to be taken into account by the relevant public authorities.
The Cumbria Trust has questioned CoRWM’s “independence” because they believe the Committee has changed its position in order to be compliant with Government policy. We absolutely agree that the credibility of CoRWM’s independent expert opinion is vital. But from what we can see, there are no grounds or evidence to suggest that CoRWM has changed its position on this issue.
It is entirely possible that CoRWM have rephrased their position, but that’s not the same as changing their position. There is a strong possibility that something of a “you say tomayto, we say tomarto” thing is going on here.
For example, the Cumbria Trust “advocates actively seeking volunteers from areas which have promising geology”, and the purpose of the National Geological Screening (NGS) exercise is to collate and distribute all known relevant geological criteria so that communities can understand whether their local geology is “promising” or not. Given the high costs of geological investigation, and the inevitable National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) scrutiny there will be on how those funds are spent, the most likely sites to be investigated will be those with the most promising rather than the least promising geology (assuming a ‘willing’ community). It would seem the Cumbria Trust’s preferred outcome is likely what the NGS process will deliver.
People will be coming from different perspectives and therefore will articulate the issues slightly differently – but that does not mean they are in disagreement. Such misunderstandings, different articulations of the same issue, and splitting of hairs are likely to permeate the GDF programme for many years. It is entirely right that community groups like the Cumbria Trust air their concerns, and that these are understood and appreciated from the community’s perspective. But on this particular occasion we do not believe CoRWM have changed their opinion or lost their independence. However, like the Cumbria Trust, we will continue to monitor all key players’ future actions.