The “How do we talk about the Back End?” session at the ANS Winter Conference & Expo on Wednesday, November 15, focused on recent experiences in communicating about used nuclear fuel to a skeptical public.
Andrew Smith, ANS’s director of communications, moderated the discussion with panelists Pat O’Brien, director of government affairs and communication for Holtec International, and Paul Dickman of Argonne National Laboratory and a special advisor to Japan's Fukushima decommissioning agency.
O’Brien: After 13 years in state and local government in Massachusetts, O’Brien moved to the Pilgrim nuclear power plant for its last five years of operation. After Pilgrim shut down, he moved to Holtec, where initially he oversaw decommissioning, communications, and government affairs before taking charge of all corporate communications and government affairs.
O’Brien highlighted his experiences at the Pilgrim plant. Facing challenges such as being labeled “the worst operating plant in the country,” he said, and dealing with negative media coverage, he discussed the importance of effectively communicating safety and operational details to the public during crisis situations.
In 2018, Pilgrim announced its shutdown and prompt decommissioning by Holtec. “At that point, I thought my career in nuclear was going to be very short and quick,” he said. O'Brien discussed the shift in stakeholder mindset and the community's interest in the future of the site. He also touched on media coverage during the plant's shutdown, showcasing the control room shutdown through a simulator to demonstrate the professionalism of nuclear operators. He added that it was important to have plant workers talk to the newspeople to relate the human side of the story. “What really helped was to communicate the pride these people had in running the plant,” he said. “For the 43 years that it operated, it wasn't this scary monster. There were actual people behind it who are your neighbors. They are your friends who kept you safe.”
O'Brien also addressed challenges related to used fuel communications and decommissioning, emphasizing the need for education and community engagement. He discussed the struggle against negative perceptions and misinformation, especially regarding tritium, and the role of oversight boards in providing scientific explanations. “Once we announced the shutdown, one of the biggest topics that had always been pushed by the antinuclear groups was the safe storage of the fuel,” he said. “We spent a lot of our time going into decommissioning explaining that we were going to have fuel on site and how we were going to keep it safe. We worked with community members to ensure that they felt safe and understood what we were doing.”
He noted that the plant staff also had to explain what decommissioning was. “I think a lot of [community members] just assumed we were just going to implode the buildings with dynamite and there was going to be dust. So, you really need to educate and explain that the process is surgical,” he said.
O’Brien shared positive news about the potential restart of the Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan, with support from the governor's office and the local community. He expressed enthusiasm for the resurgence of interest in nuclear energy and the possibility of adding small modular reactors to the Palisades site.
Dickman: Paul Dickman discussed various aspects related to nuclear waste management and the Fukushima reactor accident in his presentation. He highlighted his involvement in advising the Japanese government on the decommissioning of the Fukushima site and mentioned his background in nuclear chemistry and his experience in decommissioning dating back to the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
Dickman addressed the complexity of the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and emphasized the challenge of condensing the 50-year history of nuclear waste management into a concise elevator speech. He provided context on nuclear waste, comparing the contribution of an individual's nuclear waste in a lifetime to the size of a soft drink can.
The presentation delved into waste management policy, tracing its history from the 1950s when geologic disposal was recognized as the best method for high-level waste. He discussed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for a nuclear waste repository. However, political decisions, including what became known as the Screw Nevada Act in 1987, led to the abandonment of Yucca Mountain and the deferral of a second repository.
Dickman expressed frustration over the lack of progress. “The end result is that now the utilities are being funded to store their spent fuel on site, and the cost of those storage facilities and management of storage facilities is paid by the U.S. taxpayer out of something called the Judgment Fund,” he said. “The Treasury prints money for this; it's a sovereign obligation. It's not scored by Congress, so Congress doesn't pay attention to the Judgment Fund because they have no control over it. We have the technology, but there's no urgency. Utilities are being paid, but most importantly, there's no political advantage to addressing it.”
Dickman commended efforts by organizations like the American Nuclear Society in proposing a new path forward, including developing a generic repository standard.
Switching tracks, Dickman discussed the Fukushima reactor accident and its context within the broader devastation caused by the Tōhoku earthquake in Japan in 2011. He emphasized that misinformation and a focus on treated wastewater disposal diverted attention and hampered real progress in decommissioning the damaged reactors and addressing the core debris. He urged a more balanced approach to addressing the actual risks in nuclear energy.