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

by E. Dowdeswell

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An innovative National Citizens' Dialogue has brought together a representative sample of citizens in 12 communities across Canada to learn about nuclear waste in a group setting and think through their views and expectations for its long-term management. In considering the key issues and trade-offs we are trying to identify and understand the core values of the general public.

Additionally, dialogues tailored to the specific needs and requirements of aboriginal peoples, communities that currently store used nuclear fuel and organizations active in social and environmental matters have been organized.

Meeting the Challenge

There are no "right" answers to many of the ethical questions. How do we accommodate the desires of the current generation while recognizing that the decisions we make now may affect the lives of our children, their children and many generations to come? How heavily should we rely on emerging technologies? What forms of institutions and governance inspire trust and confidence?

How we approach this challenging public policy issue will say a lot about our values and priorities as a society - how we want to live.

These questions and more are fundamental to meeting the challenge of managing used nuclear fuel in an appropriate and acceptable manner. To be able to choose the right technical solutions we must first ask what requirements the technology has to live up to. Despite the fact that scientific and technical research into waste management options has been going on for decades a solution has eluded us. Perhaps that is because there has been no agreement on the societal values we wish to protect. Perhaps also because we have been arrogant in our assumptions that expertise resides only in the minds of a select few.

Within Canada and internationally, the landscape against which our study is being conducted is shifting. Issues of energy policy, security, health and safety, environmental protection, and good governance are prominent on the public agenda.

How we approach this challenging public policy issue will say a lot about our values and priorities as a society -- how we want to live. Fundamentally it is about developing a contract between science and society: a contract that allows us to benefit from technology while managing the risks and respecting the values of Canadians.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell is President of Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization (www.nwmo.ca). She has had an extensive career in government, education and international affairs. From 1993 to 1998 she served as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program. Before joining the United Nations, Ms.Dowdeswell was Canada's Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment from 1989 to 1992, responsible for the national weather and atmospheric agency. E-mail: edowdeswell@nwmo.ca

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