The workshop’s final session sought to elicit best practices in public engagement based on previous experiences with nuclear siting. Ahmed Abdulla, Carleton University, introduced speakers Doug Hunter, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS); Mary Woollen, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation; and Christi Bell, University of Alaska Anchorage Business Enterprise Institute.
LEARNING FROM UAMPS
Doug Hunter, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems
Hunter offered lessons from the experience of UAMPS, an independent, project-based, voluntary, not-for-profit political subdivision of the state of Utah operating 49 energy utilities in seven states. With a firm commitment to public engagement, UAMPS has spent decades informing communities about power production options and operations.
The organization’s carbon-free power project was inspired by a growing need for reliability and resiliency frameworks to address climate change in the western United States. Several members recently chose to pursue small modular reactors (SMRs). To inform these projects, UAMPS has supported oversight, risk management, and engagement with both the public and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). So far, the public engagement aspect of this effort has involved more than 200 public meetings, which Hunter said are necessary to present the public with a full view of the project and listen to every concern.
While many locations were considered to site the SMRs, UAMPS ultimately chose to locate them at Idaho National Laboratory, working with the Department of Energy (DOE). Because this site has already hosted more than 50 reactors, the surrounding community is already familiar and comfortable with nuclear energy. UAMPS successfully negotiated with the DOE and the NRC in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act for a long-term lease. In addition, the organization worked with a local indigenous community to ensure that the facilities were constructed in ways that were sensitive to the cultural values they associated with the land, something that Hunter said deserves greater emphasis.
In its contracts for the equipment and engineering to support these facilities, Hunter said UAMPS has emphasized transparency and flexibility, allowing administrators and engineers to leave the project and allowing UAMPS recourse if costs wind up being higher than expected. The NRC has approved the site, and UAMPS is awaiting final signoff on the technology before construction begins. In the meantime, the project is open to participation from additional communities who may want to join, in addition to the 30 that have already signed on.
BEST PRACTICES IN PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT
Mary Woollen, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation
Woollen reflected on her extensive experience observing and participating in processes for siting nuclear facilities to draw out some best practices in public engagement. Despite the polarization around nuclear energy, she said that it is still possible for public engagement to be civil and productive. However, the industry does not help itself when it talks down to the public and blames their opposition on a failure to understand, nor is it helpful when the public or nongovernmental organizations refuse to consider information that challenges ideology.
One opportunity to create a better dialogue is for the nuclear industry to examine its own behavior, Woollen said. A useful model for behavior improvement is antecedent, behavior, consequence, or “ABC.” The antecedent is everything that precedes the interaction and influences the way people conduct themselves during an interaction (the behavior), which in turn affects the outcomes (the consequences). The ABC model can help the industry understand how the work done to build relationships with a community early in the process influences behavior of all sides during the engagement, as well as the ultimate outcome.
Woollen stressed the importance of meaningful early engagement to build trust. Engineers often work for years on a design that is safe and economically sound and then share the plan with the public only at the
very last stage. Public meetings where engineers who have not gained community trust present a complex plan to an overwhelmed and under-informed community rarely go well. They are not meeting the audience where they are or addressing their main concern, which is typically safety. Meetings that focus on clarity, alignment, and consensual approval instead of top-down direction will result in less acrimony and reduce lawsuits, project rejections, and public relations costs, Woollen said.
Other best practices for the early stages of a project include a comprehensive, meaningful, dynamic engagement process that is led by upper management and designed with realistic expectations; securing needed resources and empowering experts with broad skill sets to support this work; and transparent, inclusive information sharing with all stakeholders, even the most vocal opponents. During the engagement process, two-way communication in plain English, feedback and evaluation channels, and listening deeply are all vital to gaining the community’s trust.
Following early-stage best practices results in civil and curious collaborations, where stakeholders are meaningfully engaged, interactions are designed to build relationships and trust, and leadership is at the table. They may not guarantee success, but these best practices will make a difference in public goodwill and project outcomes, Woollen said.
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Christi Bell, University of Alaska Anchorage Business Enterprise Institute
Bell described her economic development experience, particularly with a project in partnership with Idaho National Laboratory examining the deployment of nuclear technology to highlight strategies for effective community engagement around proposed nuclear sites.
When entering community siting discussions, Bell said she takes an entrepreneurial approach, first trying to understand who the community is, what they aspire for from an economic development standpoint, and why they are pursuing energy change. She and her colleagues also use models to formulate strategies, but as each region is slightly different, the models are tested and tweaked as needed. Even after an initial path forward has been determined, continued communication with a broad mix of stakeholders informs adjustments to the plan. This is a continuous process of iterating as new information and a refined community vision emerge.
Regardless of the industry, a key hurdle to public acceptance of facility siting is the cost of workforce development, Bell said. As such, she said developers should collaborate with economic development professionals and their local higher education institutions to ensure that related training and career pathways are established in advance of need. Local politics
are somewhat less of a hurdle, but the community must first see itself as having a voice in the choices of and solutions to implementing bold energy goals.
Bell also urged developers to build trust with key community stakeholders, engage with small groups to test ideas and concepts, and expand the conversation to be as inclusive as possible. The timing of the engagement process is critical, and the timing of meetings should be responsive to the community’s needs and preferences, she said. She emphasized the importance of listening, being mindful of antecedents that may influence attitudes, and addressing risks and uncertainties. Last, she stressed the need to identify and work with all stakeholders, including indigenous groups. She noted that even schoolchildren, who are the community’s future leaders, can be successfully engaged and influence choices and therefore should not be overlooked as an influential stakeholder group.
During the workshop’s final discussion session, participants dissected strategies for effective community engagement along with policy considerations for supporting these strategies.
Effective Community Engagement
Abdulla asked panelists to comment on lessons learned and how they have avoided repeating past mistakes. Hunter answered that UAMPS started by examining what did not work with previous nuclear projects and taking deliberate steps to avoid repeating them. Critically, this included a formal planning process to ensure that engineering designs were truly ready for implementation before they were explained to the public, and a purposeful effort to communicate design specifics in a way that stakeholders could understand. Woollen said that despite an increased awareness of the importance of community engagement, in general there remains room for improvement in terms of implementation. “To be quite honest, we’re making a lot of the same mistakes over again,” she said.
Abdulla asked how public engagement challenges or approaches might be different if the vision is 10,000 SMRs rather than a small number of large reactors. Woollen replied that no matter how big or small a project is, approval hinges on community engagement. Climate change may be making the public more open to nuclear energy, but effective engagement is still necessary to create a strong relationship that will last the life of the facility. She noted that early deployments will demonstrate proof-of-concept and offer learning opportunities: “What you do the first time around isn’t all going to work,” she said. “You have to be willing to learn from that.”
Allison Macfarlane, University of British Columbia, asked the panelists to comment on how long effective public engagement takes, especially when problems such as climate change require urgent solutions. Hunter replied that getting site data can often take 2 to 3 years before the licensing process begins. For UAMPS’s SMR work, the organization has been engaging with communities for more than a decade, starting with initial discussions of nuclear energy in general and not moving forward with specifics until communities decided they were open to siting a facility. Public hearings about a site’s characteristics are still critical, but he speculated that having community buy-in from an early stage, along with SMR standardization to ensure safety, should speed up approval time. Better, more direct public and NRC engagement practices, as well as a portfolio of successful implementations to learn from, could also facilitate a speedier process, he said.
Woollen added that it remains unclear how much energy it is feasible to generate from a mix of renewable sources, and whether nuclear necessarily needs to be a part of that mix. Making long-term responsible decisions will require clarity about how to best match needs with capabilities, and effective public engagement requires listening to all of the community’s ideas and challenges, without prematurely identifying a winner or loser. Bell added that effectively leveraging assets, such as economic development practitioners, is also important to this process.
Abdulla asked if a deeper study of community engagement was warranted. Bell expressed support for this idea, and suggested that interdisciplinary teams could study the engagement process from multiple perspectives in an intentional way, as exemplified by the Emerging Market Analysis project she is involved in with Idaho National Laboratory. Identifying the long-term goal, and then what short-term steps are needed to make incremental progress toward it, enables everyone to contribute their expertise and reach collective agreement on what the findings are, why they are important, and how the community will react. This process, she suggested, would enable siloed academic researchers to offer more complete and comprehensive solutions. Woollen agreed that integration of different disciplines is critical to success and can improve communication.
Abdulla asked how to go from understanding how to engage communities effectively to actually doing it. Hunter answered that UAMPS made several changes to initiate more effective engagement. Recognizing the importance of speaking with all groups in a community—which proved difficult at large meetings—they scheduled smaller meetings with a more approachable team. This was especially helpful for decision makers, who gained a better understanding of what the project entailed, putting them in a better position to explain it to the public.
Woollen noted that the public may be more open to nuclear energy now than in the past because the cost-benefit balances have changed. As the costs of fossil fuels grow higher and more obvious, people are reexamining their values and becoming more curious about nuclear energy. The public may be willing to work harder, ask questions, listen to the responses, engage deeply, and find shared values over a seemingly intractable debate to identify a better path forward.
Bell agreed that finding commonalities is essential. The nation seems highly divided, but the more conversations that are held, the clearer it becomes that there is more that brings people together than keeps them apart, she said. Given the rapid pace of technological change, she added that it is also vital to continue being curious, iterating, and learning.
A participant asked about the tension between standardization and customization; while SMRs may all be identical, they will be implemented in dramatically different environments around the world, necessitating community engagement processes that are tailored to each locale. Hunter replied that the option of replacing defunct coal or natural gas plants with SMRs could reduce the implementation challenge by taking advantage of existing infrastructure. Todd Allen, University of Michigan, asked whether it would help to pair standardized SMRs with customizable community benefit packages. Bell agreed that offering solutions paired with community-specific incentives deemed in their own best interest and in service of their vision is important. Woollen noted that community visioning can be a powerful tool that puts the community’s self-interest at the center. Communities are more likely to back projects that they feel address their needs.
Bell posited that a national policy push, along with investment and education, are important to support the entrepreneurial mindset required to obtain public acceptance and start scaling SMR technology. Without a national imperative to implement a 10,000-SMR future, progress will be very slow and difficult. Abdulla asked how the NRC could better engage with communities around such a plan. Hunter suggested that the NRC should expand, improve, and advertise its processes to make them more available, welcoming, and understandable to the public. As a representative of the society as a whole, he suggested the organization should play a bigger role in building trust and making information accessible to the public. Woollen added that the NRC could standardize policy decisions that promote public engagement. However, she cautioned that having standards and policies does not guarantee that they will be implemented by people who have internalized their importance and earned community trust.
Macfarlane noted that existing regulations can make it difficult to force new policy directives. For example, the Atomic Energy Act takes away a lot of state power in siting decisions, and the NRC’s backfitting regulation impedes certain community engagement processes. “It would behoove us to understand those limitations,” she said. If the problem of effective community engagement cannot be solved by new laws or new policies, then the focus becomes how to do the hard work of working with communities and listening to their concerns, with the understanding that engagement will be expensive and time-consuming, and that it may still fail.
Richard Meserve, Covington & Burling, LLP, agreed that the NRC should make itself much more accessible and transparent to communities to reassure them that their concerns have been thoughtfully addressed. However, he said, that would not be enough, because as Macfarlane pointed out, the NRC is constrained by laws, especially those around safety and security. Community concerns are often about much broader issues outside of the NRC’s purview, such as jobs, the local economy, or land use. Hunter noted that one community concern that is a key NRC issue is safety, and the NRC promotes nuclear energy as safe. Although the NRC ensures that nuclear plants are designed, built, and operated in a safe manner, the perceived promotion of safety is an insight into the public’s skepticism of regulatory bodies
Abdulla asked Woollen what a better engagement process between the public and the NRC would look like. She replied that it depends on the objective of the engagement. There is no one set way to accomplish a goal, but before projects are executed, public meetings need to be thoughtfully planned to envision where the project is going, what the steps will be, where there may be unpredictable events, and what the potential reactions would be. People may or may not show up, and there may or may not be acrimony, but methodically following these steps is a good start and demonstrates consistency and commitment. Abdulla added that the process also requires strategic leadership and a significant investment of time and resources.
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