Improving public and stakeholder engagement in nuclear waste management

In 2010, soon after determining that Yucca Mountain should no longer be developed as the United States’ nuclear waste repository, the Obama administration chartered a commission to develop a strategy for managing the country’s spent nuclear fuel and military high-level radioactive waste. On January 26, 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) submitted its final report to the US Energy Secretary. The report examined problems with past efforts and identified critical needs for a successful and fair waste-management strategy; chief among them were that technical and top-down approaches to siting facilities must be rejected out of hand, and that Congress should charter an organization independent of the Energy Department to run the program. The commission recommended a transparent, flexible, consent-based process for siting interim and permanent spent fuel and high-level waste storage facilities. However, we note six critical points where the commission could — and should — have gone further in its recommendations:

The BRC report should have taken a much broader view of public and stakeholder engagement. That view should have begun with a clear definition of who the stakeholders are. This oversight seems ironic in view of the commission’s adoption of the recommendations in the 2003 National Research Council study One Step at a Time: The Staged Development of Geologic Repositories for High-Level Radioactive Waste. That report’s definition of stakeholders includes everyone affected by, or interested in, spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste management. In the BRC’s report, public and stakeholder engagement comes across as limited to negotiation within the narrow context of siting facilities. Negotiation is, of course, critical. However, extensive dialogue and co-learning are also important. Moreover, a waste-management program is not only about siting storage and disposal facilities. The program must also engage communities where spent nuclear fuel is currently stored and where it will need to be repackaged for transport; communities along transportation corridors; and neighbors to the communities that agree to host facilities.

The report should have recommended stronger protections for volunteer host communities. What safeguards can be offered to communities that might want to volunteer as potential hosts for facilities? Promises about the “right to withdrawal” are a step in the right direction, but they are weak legal protections. Even federal laws can be overturned by Congress, as happened during the previous siting process when sites in Texas and Washington were taken off the table, leaving Yucca Mountain as the only option. The BRC report correctly argues that siting criteria must be established before any assessments or decisions are made, and that there must be a process for reconsidering siting criteria in light of new information and experience. At the same time, the BRC suggests that standards and processes should be tailored for specific communities. It does not suggest minimum, universal standards that support and protect potential host communities and ensure that consent is real and broad.

The report should have more clearly specified the necessary and sufficient principles for public and stakeholder engagement. The BRC emphasized the importance of a decision-making process that is transparent and consent-based but failed to elaborate on procedural standards related to who can participate, who defines the scope and focus of the decisions, how the process should unfold, and what influence groups or individuals should have over decisions during the process. Admittedly, there are tradeoffs in defining principles in detail, because the process needs to work in many unique communities and different social contexts. Principles can conflict in practice, and when they do, good judgments are needed to chart a path forward. The next attempt to close the back end of America’s nuclear fuel cycle will stand or fall on the judgments made by teams of people within a new organization charged with implementing the process.

The “safety case” recommended by the commission should have included broader stakeholder concerns. A “safety case,” as described in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2006 safety requirements for the geologic disposal of radioactive waste, explains and justifies the purpose of each engineered feature of the facility. Combining all this information in one document is a necessary step in any successful siting process, but explaining why a facility is “perfectly safe” from an engineering perspective will be of little value if the surrounding community or host state does not accept that the facility is needed in the first place, or has no trust in the ability of the government to operate the facility properly. A failure to address stakeholder concerns, including those that seem marginally important to experts conducting risk assessments, can derail a siting process. Assurance that the project will be safe is a linchpin of the voluntary consent-based process proposed by the commission. The social science literature on risk clearly shows that safety cases are much stronger when they address the real concerns of stakeholders: the social and political dimensions of building and operating a facility.

The BRC should have made specific recommendations to ensure that a new federal waste-management organization will act differently than those in the past. The BRC’s justification for a new organization to manage waste is that it will lead to improvements in practice and in public confidence, but this will not happen simply because it’s a new organization. The BRC noted that the failure to manage nuclear wastes successfully in this country has been due to social, institutional, economic, and political challenges — not technical ones. It follows, then, that the report should have given more attention to understanding these problems and articulating an organizational structure that can competently address them. Following the recommendations of the 2003 National Research Council study, the BRC proposes an adaptive, staged approach. We support this approach, but “learning by doing” must be intentional and systematic. It should be based on good social science, just as one would expect technical problems to be addressed through good engineering.

One way to ensure that learning is more systematic and that the best social science informs decision-making is to create an oversight or review board to provide advice and evaluation on issues related to institutional design and performance, collaborative decision-making and public involvement, procedures for voluntary consent and reversibility, and public outreach and communication. The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board has served an important confidence-building function by providing advice and evaluation on technical matters, but this board lacks strong representation of social scientists. A new, parallel body could serve the same function for social dimensions of waste management.

The BRC should have argued more strongly for a national dialogue on nuclear waste management. A national dialogue was the first step taken by the nations that have made the most progress in addressing the high-level nuclear waste management challenge: Canada, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. This process established a national consensus about the gravity of the issue, the problems to be solved, and the basic processes for solving them. Details were then worked out at the community level. The United States might consider a similar approach. This would be one avenue for resolving such challenges as the right of volunteer communities to withdraw, the protection of tribal and states’ rights, and the locations of transportation corridors and storage sites.

The BRC’s considerable amount of work has resulted in a blueprint for a consent-based process, which reflects a thoughtful synthesis of more than three decades of social science and policy research. This blueprint has many strengths, but it is essential that the nation’s next efforts to implement the BRC’s recommendations take into account the six points we have raised above. Strengthening public and stakeholder engagement at all phases of this process is essential if we are to avoid repeating the problems of the past.

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