Allison Macfarlane, University of British Columbia, moderated the workshop’s fifth session, focusing on drawing lessons from experiences with nuclear waste siting in Sweden and Belgium. The speakers were Arne Kaijser, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and Anne Bergmans, University of Antwerp.
NUCLEAR WASTE SITING IN SWEDEN
Arne Kaijser, KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Kaijser discussed how developers of new and advanced reactors can learn from Sweden’s efforts to overcome opposition and gain the public trust needed to approve a nuclear waste repository site (Kaijser et al. 2021).
In the 1970s, Sweden’s ambitious nuclear program ran up against the anti-nuclear movement’s concerns over spent fuel. The 1977 Nuclear Stipulation Act stated that new reactors must include a plan for handling spent fuel, and a proposal to bury copper storage canisters in canyons was approved. When the Three Mile Island accident occurred shortly thereafter, anti-nuclear sentiment rose around the world, and in Sweden this ultimately led to a public referendum, passed in 1980, which declared that only the 12 reactors currently in use or under construction could operate, and all should be phased out by 2010. This deadline was postponed several times; currently about half are still operating, providing about 40 percent of Sweden’s power.
The referendum brought important changes regarding the handling of nuclear waste. According to the law, companies were responsible for handling the waste they generated, a responsibility that would be monitored, assessed, and regulated by the government and environmental courts. In addition, new financing rules forced companies to contribute to a state fund for every kilowatt-hour of power generated. A new organization, composed of Sweden’s nuclear companies, was created to collectively handle waste. The storage facilities were to be designed and built by this entity, SKB, which was also charged with identifying an appropriate repository site.
SKB’s initial siting attempts failed to engage the public, fueling anger and opposition. In response, the government established a new advisory body, KASAM, which hosted annual workshops that put a greater focus on issues such as ethics, uncertainty, and public tolerance surrounding nuclear waste. This process transformed SKB’s technocratic approach into something much more expansive, effective, and rooted in gaining local public approval (Kaiserfeld and Kaijser 2020).
The SKB approached several municipalities identified as candidate sites for waste repositories. Ultimately, two were amenable to hosting the repositories, one an encapsulation design and the other a deep geological repository. Both locations already hosted nuclear facilities, and the local communities already had established a baseline of trust in the nuclear industry. After some four decades of preparation, including numerous meetings with community leaders, careful examination of the plans by funded anti-nuclear organizations, and final statements from the nuclear industry, regulating authorities, regional and local communities, critical researchers, and environmental organizations, the court ultimately asked for further investigation of the durability of the copper canister design. As a result, construction of the waste facility has not yet begun.
Despite this setback, Kaijser said Sweden’s experience demonstrates the essential role of public trust in dealing with contentious technologies. To gain it, he stressed that developers must encourage “informed mistrust” by allowing everyone to voice their concerns and broaden the technocratic approach by hosting open and authentic community-centered workshops. He added that skeptics should have access to public funding to investigate their concerns, and new reactors must address the issue of waste through reliable containment at a suitable, publicly accepted location.
NUCLEAR WASTE SITING IN BELGIUM
Anne Bergmans, University of Antwerp
Bergmans discussed the central role of public engagement in successful facility siting as illustrated in the example of waste facility siting in Belgium. When local communities are not included in the discussion from the beginning, their understandably emotional reactions are viewed as irrational or uninformed. She argued that (nuclear) developers should not first determine a plan and then search for a location that is geologically perfect. Instead, they should couple the plan with the location and use effective public engagement to allow for adaptation to preferences and context. This increases the likelihood that such a project is deemed useful and acceptable by a local community.
To effectively engage with the public requires acknowledging public ownership of the problem, acknowledging the project’s complexities and the possibility of multiple solutions, and developing authentic partnerships to support co-creation of a solution. In addition, she said it is vital to remain open to negotiation, renegotiation, and adaptation, even for seemingly non-negotiable aspects, such as safety definitions or budgetary decisions. She urged planners to develop qualitative performance criteria, prioritize transparency, and engage with regulators and other institutional stakeholders. Acknowledging the social aspects of the project is as crucial as understanding its technical details, she added, and an effective process seeks insight into the public’s concerns and elicits unspoken issues or ideas.
In Belgium, a densely populated country with no remote siting options, Bergmans’s team was asked to help project organizers lead a community engagement siting initiative that married the social and technical aspects. They recommended framing the problem as finding the best disposal solution for each proposed site in conjunction with the local community. In the end, two communities crafted governance, information sharing, consultation, safety, public health, environmental, and participation requirements for siting nuclear waste facilities. As in the case of Sweden, it was useful to focus on communities that already had a nuclear presence, rather than virgin territory. The communities were able to influence several elements of the design process, such as the roof and the elevation with an inspection gallery, and both the community and the engineers were satisfied with the process and the outcome.
Because construction takes a long time and the facility is expected to operate for decades, she noted that the community engagement is never really over. Every step requires different discussions and the acknowledgment of multiple rationalities, and the extended project management team
is still involved in frequent renegotiation, especially after local elections or when encountering regulatory hurdles.
Macfarlane moderated the discussion that followed, which addressed the idea of giving up power to gain trust, the challenges of dealing with uninformed critics, and finding consensus.
Giving Up Power to Gain Trust
Noting that engineers and designers may feel threatened by the prospect of ceding power to local communities, Macfarlane asked whether it is necessary to give up some power during siting negotiations. Kaijser replied that it is better to view it not as giving up power, but negotiating with informed critics. Anti-nuclear organizations can become very well informed and help point out valid issues, even in the very early design stages, that an engineer might miss. For example, in one case corrosion experts with no nuclear knowledge helped nuclear scientists understand that corrosion was possible from radiation, something they had neglected to examine. Listening to concerns as early as possible can actually make technology better, he said.
Bergmans agreed, adding that in democracies, it is important to take the views of all people into account, even if it lengthens an already complex and uncertain process. Allowing the public to voice their concerns can help allay their fears, and listening to their tangible local knowledge helps ensure that nothing gets missed. In addition, when the public feels connected and valued, their trust in and ownership of the project and the developer increases. Trust is also gained when experts can admit they do not have every answer and are willing to look into a concern. Last, Bergmans noted that giving funding to opposing groups or “counter-experts” to scrutinize issues on their own increased trust. In fact, she said SKB had a slogan similar to “don’t trust us, check us,” demonstrating that they valued meaningful engagement without expecting blind trust.
Richard Meserve, Covington & Burling, LLP, agreed that having conversations with informed critics was valuable, but asked whether there might be different challenges when dealing with uninformed critics, whose goals are not consensus but disruption. Kaijser said that this was not the main problem in Sweden; a bigger problem was in the potential conflict of interest posed by the fact that the Swedish nuclear industry
had paid for much of the geology and corrosion research. In response, independent funding was needed to foster informed critics who were allowed to argue professionally via official channels and thus made the process and the repository design better.
Macfarlane suggested that STS fundamentals could help, for example, by asking why a society has created a sense of opposition in some groups. Is it a manifestation of distrust, lack of control, or a larger political crisis? It will take hard work to identify those issues and listen to people’s concerns, but it is not helpful to dismiss them entirely.
Bergmans agreed, noting that society has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The current polarization poses difficult challenges, but responding with the same tactics—setting ourselves in opposition to a group without listening to them—is unhelpful. It is important to understand the underlying issues leading to opposition and allow room for negotiation, which is a difficult but necessary starting point. Assuming the worst of an opponent creates a downward spiral. Sometimes, what appears to be opposition is more about politics or ideology, but it is important to remain connected and recognize the possibility of amicable disagreement.
Kaijser also pointed out that when people are engaged, they learn quickly. In the lead-up to the 1980 referendum, the anti-nuclear group became extremely knowledgeable, sometimes almost better informed than some on the industry side. The return of the nuclear energy debate can present another learning opportunity.
Macfarlane asked how these processes ultimately found consensus. Kaijser answered that in Sweden, SKB contacted a lot of municipalities and sometimes met strong resistance; other times, they got quite far until residents voted against a waste facility in local referenda. SKB only found success with areas that already hosted a nuclear facility, where many locals worked and therefore already had a high level of trust in the industry. To these communities, nuclear was not seen as a new technology. Finland experienced the same challenges and ultimately turned to the same solution: building waste repositories near existing nuclear plants. He speculated that similar patterns may be seen with siting advanced nuclear reactors, as well. They may offer robust benefits, but if the local community is opposed to having nuclear technology nearby, there’s little that can be done. “It seems difficult to convince people in local communities of accepting a new technology that they see as dangerous,” he said.
Asked to expand on a successful waste siting project in Finland, Kaijser replied that the project is using the same containment design as
the SKB’s proposal, although the process there has been faster owing to much less opposition, a different culture, and strong government backing. Finland has relatively high trust in nuclear energy and government and is much smaller and more homogeneous, so there were fewer challenges with public engagement. Even those who were staunchly opposed to the idea ultimately backed down, and the project is on track to start storing spent fuel in copper canisters within 10 years. He added that there is an ongoing conversation in Finland about new reactors and their waste, however, which is unresolved and could become contentious. He also cautioned against declaring any project successful yet, because none are fully operational and so it is unclear how well the design will work.
Bergmans added that in Belgium, the government mandates that proposed sites be both technically feasible and socially accepted. Some places declined to consider siting right away, but in communities that were more open, she engaged local groups in a broader conversation about what the project would entail and what they would need in order to vote in favor. Surprisingly, two communities found the terms acceptable, when only one was needed. Instead of choosing between the two, they decided to change the proposal to include them both. The communities, which are near each other, were very involved, creating local partnerships and working with municipal governments. One community already hosts the interim storage site, which is probably why they ultimately agreed to host the permanent site. There has been a lengthy back-and-forth between the developer, the locals, and the regulators, but construction of various auxiliary buildings has begun. While the nuclear license for the facility has not yet been obtained, and some specific questions from the regulator are still being addressed, opting out at this stage is no longer seen as an option by either side. All in all, the effort exemplifies the value of partnerships, input, and community acceptance, Bergmans said.
Kaijser, A., M. Lehtonen, J.-H. Meyer, and M. Rubio-Varas, eds. 2021. Engaging the Atom: The History of Nuclear Energy and Society in Europe from the 1950s to the Present. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Kaiserfeld, T., and A. Kaijser. 2020. “Changing the System Culture: Mobilizing the Social Sciences in the Swedish Nuclear Waste System.” Nuclear Technology 207(9):1456–1468. https://doi.org/10.1080/00295450.2020.1832815.