The workshop’s fourth session sought to draw lessons from experiences in other industries, including nuclear decommissioning, aviation, and wind and solar projects. Todd Allen, University of Michigan, introduced the speakers and moderated the discussion. The speakers were David Victor, University of California, San Diego; John Downer, University of Bristol; and Sarah Mills, University of Michigan.
LESSONS FROM NUCLEAR DECOMMISSIONING
David Victor, University of California, San Diego
Victor shared lessons from his experience as chair of the volunteer community engagement panel that Southern California Edison set up for the decommissioning process for its San Onofre nuclear power plant.
Victor noted that even before a public engagement process begins, the makeup of the bodies involved can affect the effort’s success. At San Onofre, the public engagement panel largely comprises local elected officials, who have tremendous frontline experience informing the public, listening to feedback, shaping projects, and balancing trade-offs. He added that there are also important implications of who “owns” the engagement panel—whether it is ultimately under the control of the plant operator or an independent body appointed by the state. In this case, the panel was set up by the plant operator, which meant that the panel had no real decision-making authority but enabled the panel to have more open and informal two-way discussions with the community.
Even though the San Onofre plant was no longer operational, it remained a significant point of contention in segments of the community, leading to a high level of public scrutiny for the decommissioning process, Victor said. The panel had some important successes and was able to address several community concerns, such as creating real-time, publicly available radiation monitoring. When many in the community expressed surprise that the spent fuel was not actually leaving the plant, the panel played a central role in explaining that there is no nationwide strategy for spent fuel. As a direct result of the community’s interest in this point, the operator began an intensive study of procedures used across the industry to monitor and manage the integrity of the canisters long term. The site has also reopened for walking tours, a trust-building activity for the public to bridge the disconnect with the nuclear industry and increase overall transparency.
A key lesson from the experience, Victor said, is that community trust is hard won and extremely fragile. Trust in scientific expertise in other areas does not necessarily translate to trust in nuclear experts; for example, Victor said there was a local group that does not question the science behind climate change but was very skeptical of the expertise that had been mobilized around the decommissioning process. In addition, any misstep in transparency, operations, or engagement can have a large effect on community trust. When a contractor irresponsibly handled a canister of spent fuel, the mistake set important community relationships back several steps, and repairing it required a total overhaul of communication strategies and an increased emphasis on operational excellence.
A final lesson is the importance of strong engagement between plant operators, engagement panels, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulators. The NRC, although helpful in providing huge amounts of information and expertise, often appeared not quite sure of how to engage with the San Onofre panel, perhaps because the panel did not have formal oversight or decision-making power, Victor said. While the San Onofre panel was relevant to the process and engaged with the public, he speculated that panels with more authority might benefit from a stronger relationship with the NRC. In addition, he added that it would be helpful to establish a best practices framework for all of the decommissioning stakeholders.
LESSONS FROM CIVIL AVIATION
John Downer, University of Bristol
Civil aviation and the civil nuclear industry are both reliant on highly complex technical systems that are only safe when they are functioning
exactly as they should. Therefore, both industries require ultra-high reliability that has to be proven before the systems are even built, which is why their regulatory structures have co-evolved.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifies planes through an extensive process in which each component is broken down and tested via theoretical models. However, this method of proving safety has limits, because theoretical models or tests can never truly represent the real world. Epistemologically, there is no way to determine with sufficient certainty how every detail of every material or part interaction is going to behave in every environment.
Despite this challenge, the civil aviation industry achieved its current level of reliability via three key avenues. The first is service experience: thousands of jetliners over decades of service have failed in ways that were not predicted by models or tests, allowing for insights that engineers have used to improve future designs (and tests of those designs). Second, engineers have leveraged this resource by ensuring that every single failure is fully investigated, no matter how difficult this process is, to determine what caused the problem and what changes will prevent a repeat accident. In the science and technology studies (STS) literature, this is known as recursive practice. Third, the designs of jetliners have remained extremely stable for decades, an approach Downer called innovative restraint. Any changes to civil airframes are incremental, introducing technology that has been proven in military contexts and using it in non-safety critical or redundant ways at first. As a result, when new insights or weaknesses are uncovered, they offer lessons that are cumulative and generalizable across the industry.
The upshot of this is that aviation regulators have not mastered the art of assessing failure probabilities from tests and models alone—as the certification process purports—but have slowly honed the performance of the common jetliner design paradigm over a period of decades. This makes analogies between reactors and jetliners highly misleading. Making reactors as reliable as jetliners would require the nuclear industry to commit to a common reactor paradigm and a recursive learning process, and to build and operate tens of thousands of identical reactors for decades (learning the lessons of hundreds of disasters), Downer noted. In practice, however, this is untenable. Even if it were able to tolerate the learning process, with all the failures it implies, there are only about 400 reactors in the world, with a wide variety of different designs. As such, the industry lacks this ability to universally prove and hone its reliability. In this space, researchers must actually design and assess reactors in the way that they only purport to in the design and assessment of jetliners: via abstract models and tests. As a result, its safety may be justifiably questioned, Downer said.
LESSONS FROM WIND AND SOLAR PROJECTS
Sarah Mills, University of Michigan
While renewable energy projects in general are very popular, when it comes to getting local installations approved, there is often a lot of community debate that can result in projects being rejected. Mills described insights from studies of these debates that could offer lessons for nuclear energy.
First, Mills said that the size of the project is not as important as whether the public thinks a project “fits” their vision of the community. For example, there is less opposition to large wind farms in farming communities, where the focus is on extracting value from the landscape, than in areas where people value the landscape for its aesthetics, where they may object to renewables installations for aesthetic reasons.
Second, communities are more swayed by local impacts than global ones, and personal economic benefits can outweigh many negatives. However, she cautioned that over-promising benefits or obscuring potential negative impacts is detrimental in the long term. For example, failing to deliver promised jobs is far worse than creating unexpected jobs. Developers should focus on what is important to the community and not oversell or undersell a project’s impacts, she said.
Third, procedural justice matters to the public’s acceptance. The full range of stakeholders needs to feel that their concerns were taken seriously by the developer and local officials, who are often the ultimate decision makers. Procedural justice also has long-term implications, because how the public feels about the project’s fairness shapes their overall opinion not only during the initial installation process but in the long term. Widely accepted projects are more open to upgrades and can become referral spots for potential future renewables sites.
Mills noted that nuclear energy has certain advantages over renewables. For example, it requires less land and can be sited where power plants already exist, without significantly changing the overall landscape. It also can create more local, long-term jobs, although it is important to consider whether the community has the right resources, such as a community college, to ensure that those jobs come from and support the local community. To be successful, she said developers must be careful, realistic, and maintain a hyper-local focus when engaging the community in a conversation about benefits and opportunities. As other speakers noted, trust is also essential. A poorly managed relationship can lead to major divisions over trivial issues and even turn the public away from an entire industry.
Allen moderated a discussion that delved into procedural justice, the timing and approach of community engagement, and the importance of respecting the legitimacy of community concerns.
Participants discussed the need for and nuances of ensuring procedural justice when siting facilities. Mills noted that in the case of wind and solar projects, it is often difficult to disentangle the effectiveness of actual community engagement from the reality that in many cases the landowners involved are being paid for their land and have a direct relationship with the developer. Developers can further increase public acceptance at a community level by going beyond the bare minimum required for regulatory requirements, although this can also raise the risk of attracting negative attention. She added that who initiates an engagement can matter, too. Usually, a developer approaches a community or landowner and asks if they are open to a project. It is also possible for communities to view renewable energy as an economic opportunity and incentivize developers to invest there. She said there is much more to learn about which factors influence community acceptance, because most existing research in this space is based on case studies, but the large expansion of solar and wind projects across the United States is making it increasingly possible to study this more quantitatively.
Community engagement processes face a wide variety of different concerns throughout the lifespan of a project. Mills said the data suggests that procedural justice is more important than distributive justice in predicting a project’s success or failure, although project acceptance can still be highly idiosyncratic by location. Victor noted that procedural justice may seem more important than distributive justice because of bias, or because it is easier to identify, and he cautioned against creating a hierarchy of public concerns.
Timing and Approach for Community Engagement
Participants discussed the merits of different approaches to community engagement at various stages in a project. One question is the degree to which the public engagement bodies should be independent of the developer. Victor noted that an independent process can apolitically facilitate communication between the public and the operators, but an operator with vested interest might be more intent on helping the community thrive.
Another question is timing. There are important differences between engagement when a new facility is proposed but not yet approved, and
when construction is actually under way. Research suggests that new technologies have a large acceptance hurdle, but as they scale and generate benefits, they become more acceptable over time. Victor suggested that approaching multiple communities at once and being willing to work with them to address their concerns could be helpful for garnering support for the first advanced reactors. To avoid wasting time and resources, it is of course better to know if a community will not approve a project up front, when it is easier to walk away. Asked if there was value in conducting research into a community’s decision-making preferences before developers arrive with premade plans, Mills said that it can be helpful to start the communication process with communities earlier in the process, but noted that people often do not know what their objections are until they see a proposal. For a new technology about which little is known, such as advanced nuclear reactors, Victor said it is important to determine the terms of community engagement ahead of identifying potential sites in order to rule out sites that are going to be non-starters. Mills added that in the solar industry, projects are becoming much larger, and it is hard to know if that will lead to different community impacts and viewpoints.
The question of how to bridge the large divide between the nuclear community and the public is an important strategic question to which there are no clear answers, Victor said. Mills agreed, adding that developers should not initiate community engagement if they are not willing to listen to the community. While it varies from project to project, Victor said developers should “be careful what you wish for” when engaging with communities after a project is under way. Once a site is selected, community engagement means stewarding a new relationship that acknowledges power dynamics, emotions, and opposition. Success is most likely when the community is invited into the process and involved in the trade-offs, and when the facility is generating benefits for the whole community, he said.
Respecting the Legitimacy of Community Concerns
Downer said that the nuclear industry often wrongly sees public conflict as a communication issue, which creates multiple problems. First, it assumes that the public does not have valid arguments and forecloses any potential reconsideration of the plans. Second, it unfairly assumes the public is irrational. People are more accepting of aviation than nuclear energy not because airlines have better messaging, but because aviation meets an implicit social contract, wherein jetliners fail no more frequently than regulators promise, and they do not fail twice for the same design-related reason. He added that, where airframers and airliners have failed to meet this contract, they have been punished by publics. By contrast,
he said that nuclear reactors have failed far more often than regulators predict and promise, and have thus failed to live up to their implicit social contract. Therefore, people’s doubts are not irrational, and it is unhelpful to treat them as if they are. Downer also noted that aviation is less contentious than energy because there are fewer alternative options. Jetliners are the only realistic form of air travel, which is not the case for energy, where there are many choices besides nuclear, many of which are cheaper and advantageous in other ways.
Downer added that the nuclear industry tends to construe the goal of public engagement not in terms of transparently and democratically informing the public, but in terms of gaining their agreement. If the nuclear industry were completely transparent in its engagement, he posited that the public would likely choose another option, if only because, irrespective of its contested safety, it is still extremely expensive. Todd Allen, University of Michigan, also noted that nuclear power plants feel unwelcoming to the public because they operate behind high fences and the technology has military associations, two facts that do little to create trust.