Melding social, political, and physical sciences for a successful radwaste management program

February 3, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News

The International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management conference plenary, held in November during the 2022 ANS Winter Meeting, highlighted tight communication among physical, social, and political science experts as the key to successful waste management programs. The four featured speakers provided an international perspective on this issue.


Finland: Erika Holt, co-coordinator of the PREDIS (Pre-Disposal Management of Radioactive Waste) project at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, discussed the progress being made with that country’s Onkalo deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel (SNF), for which the operating license application has been submitted to regulators. She also addressed how the European Union’s five-year strategic research and development plan is being shaped by both technical and social science needs.

There are currently two operating nuclear reactors on Finland’s west coast and two east of Helsinki, according to Holt. She said, “Each of our two utilities has their own low- to intermediate-level repositories” which have been operating for about 30 years. She added that the new Onkalo repository for high-level SNF—the world’s first deep geological repository for such material—is near the Olkiluoto power plant on the west coast, with plans for deposits to go down about 450 meters into the bedrock.

The operating license application for the Onkalo repository was submitted in December 2021 and approval is expected in 2023. “We will then spend one year doing a trial run,”,” she said. “We have everything ready on-site. We have our encapsulation plant nearly ready. We have all the shafts ready. We have the underground ventilation systems ready. And we have the trust of the public that they’re along with us all the way and that we’re sharing with them continuously that they can come in and see the facility, they can see what we’re doing, and they can hear about what’s happening.”

Holt stressed the importance of public communication and public trust: “We talk about the three pillars of success that we have in Finland, the first being trust and transparency. If we do not have that, the rest is not going to work. . . . So, we constantly have to be aware of what the perception is. We have to be honest. We have to be transparent. We have to listen. We have to let people ask their questions. And we have to answer their questions. . . . It’s our responsibility also to talk to our children about it, to be open in our community. And when I’m coaching on the basketball court, to tell the other parents, yeah, I handle nuclear waste and I'm really proud of that. And if you have a question, I’m happy to answer that.”

IAEA director general Rafael Grossi has characterized the Onkalo repository as a “game changer” for the long-term sustainability of nuclear energy, and Holt seconds that opinion, saying, “We do hope that this is a game changer for the world, to help [people] understand that we can handle the back end and the waste management, that we have a solution.”

After discussing the larger picture of waste management throughout Europe, Holt concluded her remarks. “I shared with you these things because I think we’re in a great opportunity for the next six months to enhance the dialogue between Europe and the United States about how we can do things together. When we start to look at what’s kind of on our idea shopping list . . . I think there’s a lot of synergy with some activities that might also be in your interests.”


South Korea: John Kessler, president of Kessler and Associates, a North Carolina–based provider of strategic planning and management for used nuclear fuel and waste, spoke in place of Sung Soo Cha, the president and chief executive officer of the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD), who was unable to attend the conference because of a last-minute scheduling conflict.

Kessler began by reading Cha’s prepared remarks on the status of South Korea’s nuclear waste management program and noted that as of late 2021, nuclear energy accounted for 29 percent of the electricity generated in South Korea, and low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste is currently being safely managed at the disposal facility in Gyeongju. However, there have been many challenges regarding the siting of waste disposal facilities. Kessler described a series of failures in site selection efforts dating back to the 1980s due to opposition from local residents, local governments, and environmental groups.

These siting failures prompted the South Korean government to enact a law in 2005 designed to provide financial assistance for communities slated to host waste disposal facilities. “As a result, a site for a low- and intermediate-level waste disposal facility [at Gyeongju] was secured for the first time in 19 years.” (A 2005 referendum on the issue showed that 89.5 percent of Gyeongju citizens approved of the disposal facility, which received its first waste deposit in 2015.)

Kessler attributed the eventual success of the site-selection process to five factors: (1) “fair and transparent procedures . . . followed in accordance with the laws and regulations [including] the enactment of [the law] stipulating economic assistance”; (2) “policy enforcement through a system of consultation with related agencies. . . ensured by regularly meeting with relevant agencies and personnel in charge to closely review and implement even the details of the policy”; (3) information that “has been continuously provided so that residents can feel their concerns are being addressed” in a manner where “misunderstandings could be resolved in a way in which reconciliation could be found”; (4) “a method . . . to actively solicit various opinions and . . . listening to the voices of various stakeholders”; and (5) the demonstration by all participants of “a mature sense of citizenship through communication and compromise.” The site-selection process used in South Korea, noted Kessler, “presented a new model for resolving conflicts through the consent of local residents and democratic conflict resolution with related groups.”

The Gyeongju facility will eventually hold 800,000 drums of radioactive waste, each with a 200- or 300-liter capacity. Kessler walked through the first two phases of construction: The first, launched in 2015, was the construction of an underground “silo-type repository” for low- and intermediate-level waste. The second, which was begun last August, is a “vault-type repository” for low-level waste disposal. The third phase, still in conceptual design, will be a “near-surface trench repository” for very low-level radioactive waste disposal. He noted that this facility “is the first radioactive waste disposal facility across the globe that has been developed to host three different types of repositories in one site.”

South Korea’s plans for high-level radioactive waste also were briefly touched on by Kessler. “The government plan is to locate the consolidated storage and disposal facility. KORAD has not yet begun interactions with the public on site selection.”


California: David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the University of California–San Diego and chair of California’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) Community Engagement Panel (CEP), was the third speaker of the session. SONGS, which was shut down in 2013, is currently undergoing decommissioning, and the CEP, which is made up of 18 volunteers, plays the vital role of engaging with the community during this lengthy process.

Victor’s talk focused on the importance of effective communication between technical experts and the public regarding nuclear energy issues. “An extremely important part of what we do,” he said of the CEP, “is to have the insights from people who are mayors or city council members and school board members from all the communities that are affected by the closure of the plant, because elected officials have an insight into how to make balances . . . . It’s building trust.”

The purpose of the CEP, he continued, “is to have a two-way conduit between [Southern California] Edison as the operator of the facility and the communities that are affected by the closure, so that Edison understands what the communities care about, and communities understand not only what Edison cares about but what’s actually going on in the facility.”

The four main lessons Victor has learned from his several years on the CEP are about the importance of communication—especially with opponents of nuclear energy, the value of maintaining trust, the need for greater progress in nuclear waste management in the United States, and the need for political organization.

When Victor agreed to join the CEP, he thought, “How hard could it be, because the antinuclear folks have kind of gotten what they wanted, which was to close the plant.” He said, “What could they possibly be upset about next? The answer is everything.” While noting that there is a constant level of disagreement, he said that being transparent and communicating as well as listening help build trust. “The number of times that [a] topic has come up when the engineers have said it’s safe and the public has said it’s not safe. . . . That happens all the time. . . . You know, we’ve got to build trust. We’re going to build trust by showing them the data, and that plays a role.”

That trust so carefully built, according to Victor, can also quickly be ruined. As an example, he relayed an event he referred to as “the most epic failure of sanity,” where a canister of nuclear waste got jammed in a vertical sarcophagus as it was being lowered in. “Some of the initial responses were, ‘Well, you know, even if it did fall everything would have been fine.’ Wrong answer, guys! Don’t’ say that.” He elaborated, “Edison, frankly, was not transparent, did not accurately tell the public what was going on.” This led to acrimonious meetings and a lot of public discussion, all because of “the failure to ensure ongoing excellence in operation,” he said.

Victor emphasized that there is a huge amount of information that the nuclear industry can share with the public, including explaining how the industry knows that systems are safe, and that monitoring is working. He said, “We ought to have a regular conversation with the public about this. We’re [at SONGS] doing this. So, you go to our website, you’ll find defense and depth and you find the meetings where we talked about all these different topics and so on, all the information’s online.”

Of the need for greater progress in nuclear waste management in the United States, Victor noted that other countries, such as Finland and Canada, have been making more progress on this issue than we have: “I think that would be a very, very important thing for us to do. I am so encouraged to see [the Department of Defense] is all-in on this, and interim storage is now advancing at the speed of the computer. . . . We’ve got private possible solutions, and we’ve got a public sector solution and a variety of other things. . . . We as an industry need to make that happen.”

Victor finds the need for political organization to be “obvious.” “We in this country ought to have an interim [storage facility]. . . . we in this country ought to have a series—not a single, but a series—of possible solutions for a permanent storage, whether it’s deep isolation, it’s son of Yucca, daughter of Yucca, cousins and friends of Yucca, whatever,” he said. However, “When you need to have a change in federal law, the default position is the status quo. No change in federal law. We are currently basically locked into the default position, because everyone knows in the industry we’ve got to do better.”

Victor ended his presentation by noting that “we are in the process of trying to organize more of the grassroots support from communities that are affected by stranded spent fuel, so that we can have a more common voice when it comes to speaking to Congress. That’s happening . . . but it’s one of those topics where people say something about it, they’re excited about it, then they go, you know, have drinks and then they forget the next day. We need to do better.”


Consent-based siting: Kim Petry, deputy assistant secretary for spent fuel and waste disposition at the DOE was the session’s final speaker. She addressed the current direction and focus of the U.S. government’s nuclear waste management program.

“Last year, when we were first setting up the consent-based siting program, we were brainstorming, how can we meet this challenge? How can we be successful? And at that meeting, we essentially decided that we needed to communicate more effectively. We needed to be able to listen to communities, and in doing so, we made the decision to put forth to our management that we needed to hire some social scientists and people who knew how to communicate with other people, because we were a group of scientists talking about this, and that’s not very helpful,” she began. “Overall, our eventual success is going to require a multidisciplinary team. That will include engineers, social scientists, environmental scientists, physical scientists, lawyers, and lots of other talent.”

Petry emphasized that nuclear energy is crucial to achieving the Biden administration’s goals of “50 percent reduction of carbon emissions by the end of the decade, 100 percent clean energy by 2035, and a net-zero economy by 2050.” Therefore, greater progress in waste management is necessary. She noted, “While this fuel is stored safely at 70 different sites across the United States, the communities that are hosting it never agreed to host it long-term, and at-reactor storage is not really a long-term solution. . . . And so, we’re trying to develop an integrated waste management plan that will include consolidated interim storage, a permanent disposal pathway, and the transportation infrastructure necessary for moving the spent fuel and high-level waste.”

To find suitable sites and willing communities for interim storage and permanent disposal, Petry explained that, with funding from Congress, research and development on geologic disposal with a focus on consent-based siting is underway, as is information exchange with other countries.

According to Petry, $16 million in federal funding is being provided to communities interested in learning about management of spent nuclear fuel and storage facility siting via the DOE’s consent-based citing program. She said that this program is only one part of the government’s efforts to deal with communication challenges and lack of public trust. Another effort is to hire a more diverse workforce, made up of “a diversity of talent, not just engineers”; she said they are “really trying to cover the gamut of what we really might encounter when we go through this process. We’re also in the process of bringing on a public affairs person to help us with our [community] engagement activities.”

The next steps in the DOE’s consent-based siting process “will be making our draft consent-based siting process document publicly available soon, and next year, after the funding opportunity closes, we’ll do our internal procurement stuff and we'll be making our awards. We’ll award those cooperative agreements early next year, is our goal. And lastly, we’ll be continuing to adjust our consent-based siting process with what we’ve learned along the way, because it’s an iterative process. We know it’s not static. We need to continue to evolve and learn more.”

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