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Mayors, Councilors and Operators Discuss Hosting Radioactive Waste Sites

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The Central Organization for Radioactive Waste COVRA, the Netherlands, offers storage space for local museums in the area. Here, precious artefacts are side by side with low level radioactive waste, March 2017. (Photo: A. Evrensel/IAEA)

Finding a site for a nuclear or waste management facility and hosting it in a spirit of understanding and partnership are of fundamental importance in the nuclear industry. At a meeting at the IAEA last week, 95 mayors, councilors and representatives from national organizations with responsibility for engaging local stakeholders from 25 countries, discussed the experience of hosting radioactive waste management sites and other nuclear facilities. 

“The nuclear world doesn’t have to be a closed one. We are working for the people. Everybody in the vicinity knows there is a nuclear power plant, and that this power plant generates waste. So why not talk about it?” said Gerben Dijksterhuis, mayor of Borssele in the Netherlands, which hosts both a nuclear power plant and a radioactive waste and spent fuel storage facility. In Borssele, certain parts of the facility are open to the public and even host art exhibitions and other cultural events from time to time. Such transparency and public service build trust, Dijksterhuis said.

While the nuclear industry has the scientific and technical basis for safe and secure radioactive waste management, this on its own is not enough, said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy. Implementing a successful radioactive waste management programme includes building and sustaining local trust.

“If nuclear power deployment doesn’t grow and other low carbon technologies do not make up the gap, we will not meet our climate targets,” Chudakov said during his opening remarks. “Public perception is an important factor when deciding on an energy mix. Nuclear has to secure public support in order to play a role commensurate with its potential to address global warming.”

Hosting a nuclear site brings both tangible and intangible benefits, said David Moore, Deputy Mayor of Copeland, the home of Sellafield, the United Kingdom’s fuel reprocessing and nuclear decommissioning facility. “We in West Cumbria have hosted nuclear waste facilities for over fifty years, and it has allowed our community to become one of the most knowledgeable on waste matters,” he said. “We have seen the advantages of well-paid jobs and investment in skills and training.”

Learning from local experience

The Central Organization for Radioactive Waste COVRA, the Netherlands, had teamed up with a local artist in designing its facilities. Here, former COVRA Director Hans Codée (left) together with the artist William Verstraeten, looking at a model of the depleted uranium storage. (Photo: A. Evrensel/IAEA)

Participants from around the world shared their perceptions, needs, expectations and experience in participating and managing local dialogue in the long term and broadening the dialogue to include other communities. The meeting helped them learn what works in practice in various countries, and what doesn’t.

The waste management facility in Borssele was presented as an example of transparency. The importance of regular, open communication with municipal officials and the public was also discussed.

“There is no blueprint for every country; one can’t ‘copy-paste’ approaches. But one can get ideas from others’ experiences, and that’s why meetings like this matter so much,” said Jacob Spangenberg, mayor of Östhammar Municipality, Sweden, where the country is waiting for a licensing decision authorizing the construction of a deep geological repository for radioactive waste.

While each group of local stakeholders has its own interests and local circumstances can differ, there are some general lessons learned from experience that can be useful in the design and implementation of radioactive waste management programmes, said Alan Carolissen, Chief Operating Officer at South Africa’s National Radioactive Waste Disposal Institute.

The IAEA is distilling lessons learned captured from experiences of Member States into a document for interested stakeholders, including waste management organizations, operators and government officials engaged with potential host communities. This meeting has provided valuable insights and contributions, which will be taken on board.

“Around the world, the topic of nuclear waste is a controversial one. There is fear. There is lack of trust,” said Fred Kuntz, manager of Ontario Power Generation in Canada. “We all share this resistance. But we can’t use nuclear with peace of mind unless we have a solution for its waste, and we have it. Now how do we build trust in this? Engaging in dialogue and showing that we are real human beings. It’s like any relationship in life: it takes time and good values to build.”

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