02/14/2012 - 10:07

Social acceptance and the Blue Ribbon Commission: A positive experience in national nuclear waste discussions

Allison MacfarlaneJohn Kotek

John Kotek

Kotek is a partner in the consulting firm Gallatin Public Affairs and served as Staff Director for...

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Allison Macfarlane

Chair of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board, Macfarlane was named to the Blue Ribbon Commission on...

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Last month, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future (BRC) released its final report, a culmination of two years' work on the difficult issue of how best to manage the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle in the United States. We both participated in this process, as a commissioner and as staff director, and find it worthwhile to reflect on how the commission's process -- that is to say, involving the community -- shaped our recommendations.

Unsurprisingly, the most challenging part of waste management is finding facility sites that please all affected levels of government -- local, state, tribal, and federal. Opposition to nuclear waste management facilities -- particularly at the state level -- is at the heart of the federal government's failure to hit its 1998 deadline, set by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, to begin accepting spent nuclear fuel for disposal. The failure to meet that deadline, and missteps in the implementation of the Act, has led to an erosion of trust in the federal government's program.

To help restore at least some measure of trust in this nuclear waste management program, the commission found it essential to contact a wide range of individuals, state and local government representatives, and non-governmental organizations (NGO) with an interest in the issue -- in fact, one staff member's sole responsibility was identifying and contacting these people and groups. The commission then brought NGO and local government representatives from around the country to our meetings in Washington, DC. Commission members also traveled across the country to hold meetings in 11 states -- and several traveled to six countries (Sweden, Finland, France, UK, Japan, and Russia) -- to hear from communities most affected by the nuclear waste management challenge. All BRC hearings were open to the public and those that occurred in the United States were webcast live, if technology allowed, and all included public comment sessions. The information the commission received from these hearings and site visits was made available on its website www.brc.gov, as were all written comments on drafts of the final and subcommittee reports. Every comment was accepted, even from those who wrote to us on a daily basis.

The BRC's plan for conducting its review was evaluated and adapted as the process unfolded. After issuing its draft report in July 2011, for instance, the commission held five public hearings around the country to solicit feedback. These hearings were led by independent facilitators and included small-group breakout sessions for more intimate discussions. As BRC members, we found these hearings an invaluable source of feedback, and we incorporated many of these comments into our final report. For example, based on repeated feedback on how inadequately our report dealt with the safe transportation of spent fuel, we added an entirely new chapter on the issue and recommended that there should be prompt efforts to prepare for the large-scale transportation of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste that will occur once a repository is open.

Even the editing process, to some degree -- from identifying what information to include in the final report to discarding suggestions with reasons why -- was public at our final meeting on December 2, 2011, in Washington, DC.

The public involvement process we adopted was not perfect, of course -- and critics will undoubtedly find elements of our process that fell short. But we're proud to have participated in a review that was as transparent and inclusive as any we've been a part of. Establishing a transparent and inclusive process added real value to the commission's work, made for a better final report, and proved to the commission that such a process can and should be replicated.

Currently, the Energy Department handles the country's program for managing spent fuel; however, the commission concluded that this is not the way forward. Inspired by its community interaction and strong feedback, the commission recommended that legislation be developed to transfer this responsibility to a new, independent, government-chartered corporation focused on carrying out this program. With a full-time management and staff devoted solely to nuclear waste management, the new organization would be able to undertake an even more extensive public involvement program than the commission could with its volunteer members and small staff. A strong public process that encourages community participation is essential for successful siting of repositories and storage facilities.

At the BRC's final meeting, we heard some distinctive praise for the commission's process during the public comment period. For instance, Arjun Makhijani, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, said:

I really wanted to thank the commission. You started your work by everybody complaining about a lack of openness and lack of public comment, and how everything was predetermined. And you listened right away. You opened it up. You transcribed the proceedings. You webcast the proceedings. You expanded the public comment. And in this culminating session, you showed that you took the public comment seriously. So, I think that is really very exemplary, and I want to thank you for doing that.

We're pleased to note that groups as diverse as the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, the Energy Communities Alliance, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and the Nuclear Energy Institute all voiced their support for the process the commission followed. It was gratifying to hear that the BRC's efforts at openness and inclusion were appreciated by those who have followed the nuclear waste management saga most closely over the past decades. To be sure, the new nuclear waste management organization we recommend will need to do far more in the way of public involvement than our small group was able to do, but we're confident that we've taken the first few steps down a new and far more promising path.