The Continuing Quest:
Managing nuclear waste goes far beyond the science

by E. Dowdeswell

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The NWMO has been given three years to study, at a minimum, three approaches including deep geological disposal, storage at the nuclear reactor sites and, centralized storage, either above or below ground. We must examine the risks, costs and benefits, develop implementation plans and consult with Canadians. Once the Government of Canada takes a decision on our recommendations the NWMO will be responsible for implementation.

It is reasonable to ask, "What will make this attempt any different than those of the past?" The answer may lie in our search to understand the deeply held values of citizens and to review our options through a multi-dimensional lens that is in part shaped by citizens themselves.

Sustainable development is our conceptual underpinning. We see as our purpose, to develop collaboratively with Canadians a management approach that is socially acceptable, technically sound, environmentally responsible and economically feasible.

Our approach includes a focus on broad engagement of society; a comprehensive (not just technical) review; a study built around three milestone documents so that we could learn together with citizens -- first about the framework for the study itself, then the assessment and finally the recommendations and implementation plan. We provide a forum for recognizing divergent viewpoints and seeking common ground.

From Dialogue to Decision

To be able to choose the right technical solutions we must first ask what requirements the technology has to live up to.

Our journey from dialogue to decision is well underway. Our first discussion document "Asking the Right Questions? The Future Management of Canada's Used Nuclear Fuel" defines the problem, communicates potential choices and poses a way of assessing the alternatives. Key questions have emerged from our preliminary conversations with a broad cross-section of Canadians. They brought perspectives and ideas that were instrumental in advancing our knowledge and understanding. We listened and learned.

Scenario workshops helped us imagine the future. Workshops with environmental interests, representatives of aboriginal communities and those with technical and scientific expertise contributed insights about expectations and concerns, the knowns and unknowns and suggested possible ways forward. Papers were commissioned to capture the current state of knowledge on a broad range of technical matters as well as evolving concepts related to our work. And of course we benefited from the experiences of other countries around the globe. Throughout, a panel of ethicists reminds us of the ethical implications of our process and thinking.

Ours is a work in progress. Two interrelated tracks of activity are underway: an assessment which thoroughly examines the options and an engagement program through which we are testing our initial observations and refining our thinking. This iterative process of seeking input and exposing our evolving ideas will continue until our task is completed.

A multidisciplinary assessment team has developed an assessment methodology that builds on the framework identified by citizens. It is being applied to each of the alternatives, identifying the risks, costs and benefits and describing the social, economic and ethical considerations associated with each of them. The team is also testing the robustness of different approaches against different time frames contemplated in the earlier scenarios workshops. All of this work will be shared with the public for review before recommendations are developed.

The core of our engagement program is our web site. It is becoming a significant repository of information and an active venue for engagement and exchange. It offers simple polls and short surveys, invites more comprehensive electronic submissions and will host moderated "e-dialogues."

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