Scientists say federal nuclear waste panel must rebuild public trust

A renewed federal effort to fix the nation’s stalled nuclear waste program is focusing so much on technological issues that it fails to address the public mistrust and lack of credibility hampering storage and disposal efforts, say Clark University scientists in a policy forum paper published in the latest issue of the journal Science.

In “Nuclear Waste: Knowledge Waste?”16 experts from around the country say a special White House panel on high-level radioactive waste needs to focus more on the social and political acceptability of its solutions to succeed.

“While scientific and technical analyses are essential, they will not and arguably should not carry the day unless they address, substantively and procedurally, the issues that concern the public,” they write.  “The scientists and officials seeking to craft an acceptable [nuclear] waste-management strategy are starting from the weak position created by the legacy of past actions.”

Among the lead authors of the paper is Seth Tuler, a Research Fellow with the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) in Greenfield, MA, with a Ph.D. from the Environmental Science and Policy program at Clark University.  Other contributors include Thomas Webler, also a Ph.D. from Clark and a Research Fellow with SERI and adjunct faculty member at Clark University’s School of Geography; Roger Kasperson, a Research Professor and Distinguished Scientist at Clark University’s George Perkins Marsh Institute (GPMI); and Robert Goble, Research Professor at GPMI and in Clark’s International Development, Community and Environment department (IDCE).   The authors are widely published experts on risk assessment, communication and management, with decades of experience studying U.S. nuclear waste policy; significant efforts were organized through the George Perkins Marsh Institute and its predecessors at Clark studying the planning and assessment process for Yucca Mountain and comparing international efforts at managing radioactive waste.

“It is clear that the national effort launched in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to create a long-term solution to nuclear waste storage and disposition has failed.” ~ Robert Goble

This paper comes while a worldwide “nuclear renaissance” has more than 50 reactors under construction and another 100-plus planned over the next decade. In the United States, one reactor is under construction, several are planning increased power levels and several older plants are applying for license extensions; four to eight planned plants may go on line by 2020.  Meanwhile, some 60,000 tons of high-level waste have accumulated in the United States alone as 10 presidential administrations have failed to develop a successful waste-disposal program.

President Obama is increasing the nation’s commitment to nuclear energy with $8.6 billion in loan guarantees to two new plants in Georgia and a 2011 budget request for tens of billions more. Meanwhile, he has appointed a 15-member Blue Ribbon Panel to review the storage, processing and disposal of nuclear materials.

The panel, which includes former politicians and “think tank” leaders, is dominated by science and technology experts, with little of the “social science expertise required to establish social trust and confidence in the integrity of the process,” says Kasperson.  The psychological and social sciences provide extensive insight into how the public views the risks of nuclear waste. These findings can help to inform the crafting of strategies that simultaneously address social concerns and technical requirements through selection of appropriate stakeholders, identification of social concerns, and the integration of both technical and lay knowledge.

The new Blue Ribbon Panel has the opportunity to capitalize on these well established methods and insights, thereby promoting a more credible, collaborative and broadly accepted policy for nuclear-waste storage, processing and disposal.  The study’s authors are concerned, however, that these crucial elements may be overlooked. 

“It is clear that the national effort launched in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to create a long-term solution to nuclear waste storage and disposition has failed,” says Goble.  He adds, “The issues surrounding an effective radioactive waste management program are diverse and highly challenging.”  Successful resolution of these issues will “require rebuilding social trust in the nuclear industry and in the federal government.”  As stated in the article, “addressing relevant social issues does not guarantee success, but ignoring them increases the chances of repeating past failures.”

Science  is the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, widely regarded as the leading outlet for science and research news and claiming a global readership of more than one million.

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