Where Should We Put Radioactive Waste?
Unless all stakeholders across society are involved in the process, the search for a final repository simply goes nowhere. The ENTRIA research project based at Freie Universität has concluded after five years – with hopes for continuation.
Jan 17, 2018
Where are we supposed to put the 30,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste and 600,000 cubic meters of medium to low-level radioactive waste left by the Atomic Age? Although the days when nuclear fission will be used to generate energy in Germany are numbered, the issue of final storage will be a problem for a long time to come.
To be precise, it will be an issue for the next 40,000 generations, says Achim Brunnengräber, a political scientist who has completed the habilitation process and is now a project manager at the Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU) at Freie Universität.
It is necessary to prove that highly radioactive waste can be stored safely for a million years. Whether the problem can be solved, and if so, how, is the subject of study for experts working on a large-scale project named ENTRIA. Sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the project is receiving 15 million euros in funding. The name is an acronym, standing for the German term “Entsorgungsoptionen für radioaktive Reststoffe: Interdisziplinäre Analysen und Entwicklung von Bewertungsgrundlagen” (Disposal Options for Radioactive Residues: Interdisciplinary Analyses and Development of Evaluation Principles).
About 60 researchers from 13 scientific and research institutions are working together on the project on an interdisciplinary basis. They are working on the issue of final storage from the standpoints of the natural sciences, engineering, humanities, law, political science, and social sciences. ENTRIA ran for five years, ending this year. But there are signs that a successor project, ENTRIA plus, is on the horizon.
Final Storage: Problem for the Next 40,000 Generations
“The questions are much more complex than people assumed,” Brunnengräber explains. He concedes that he was highly surprised by the great need for research. He is still amazed by how few analyses in the political and social sciences have focused on issues of final disposal – despite the fact that highly radioactive waste has been generated for decades. Even in technical fields, he explains, a lot of points are still undecided – like what properties containers in a final repository need to have, and what kind of storage is the best disposal option, whether with or without the possibility of retrieval.
In light of the scale of the problem, and because so many future generations will be affected, much more extensive debate is needed within society, Brunnengräber says. The fact that this is not happening – despite the passage of federal legislation on selection of sites back in 2013 and despite the work done by the German government’s Final Disposal Committee from 2014 to 2016 and by newly created institutions at the EU level – is due to a number of factors, he explains, including the issue that this is a very tricky long-term problem that hardly lends itself to any kind of “positive narrative.”
Across five projects, the FFU ENTRIA team analyzed the social side of the debate. The researchers wanted to know a number of things, including who the stakeholders in any dispute regarding final storage sites actually are – “a field that has been the subject of far too little research so far,” Brunnengräber says. But the question of who takes action, on which side, toward what aim, and for what reason is absolutely crucial when it comes to identifying a social solution. In one working report, the team listed 300 stakeholders, classified them, and studied what interests drive them.
The next step focused on conflict analysis and on acceptance. “How can the search process be organized to minimize conflict? What new problems should be expected once a final disposal site has been found?” Brunnengräber says, giving examples of important questions that came up at this stage. Making sure that as many relevant stakeholders as possible are involved and being highly flexible when dealing with unforeseen developments are crucial to this process, he explains. Because not a single final disposal site for highly radioactive waste has been put into operation anywhere in the world, the team of researchers also looked at how other countries are approaching the issue.
Social Input and Dialogue: Keys to the Search for Sites
Their findings were not very encouraging: Almost everywhere, the first step was to follow the “DAD” (decide, announce, defend) approach. Decisions regarding a site were made by governments, announced, and then defended – in many cases, against great resistance from society. “This doesn’t work. All of the attempts to do this have failed,” Brunnengräber says. Germany is no exception: “We have a law, a committee report, institutional reforms, and certainly also a lot of good impetus from the general population – but we don’t have a location or a final disposal site.”
At the same time, he firmly believes that acceptance dwindles the more the decision is made “from above” and the closer the site is to a person’s own living environment. And that in turn means that even public involvement and transparency are no guarantee that the search for a site will be successful. In Switzerland and the UK, it seemed that appropriate locations had already been found, the public was involved, but then there was a sudden surge of outrage and protest – and the projects were put on hold.
Ultimately, old conflicts between the government, operators of nuclear power plants, and the many initiatives opposed to nuclear power also played into the situation. People don’t trust each other, so they don’t work together in committees in the first place, and they have completely different notions of citizen involvement and possible solutions. Brunnengräber says this means it is important to the social sciences to work on these historically rooted conflicts together with the stakeholders and include them in research activities.
“We can’t make any progress here until we come to grips with the past,” he explains. He believes the challenge facing parliamentary democracy will be to lend more weight to elements of social input and dialogue when looking for a site. The government could take various steps to foster greater trust, for example, by providing financial support to citizens’ initiatives to allow them to commission their own scientific reports and expert opinions.
The experts participating in the ENTRIA joint research project achieved their main goal, namely that of providing solid arguments for surface storage and final disposal with and without retrieval. However, the research process also brought up many other questions that researchers will need to pursue now and into the future. Including stakeholders from across society in the research process seems to be a promising approach.
Even though Germany has decided to stop using nuclear power, maintaining and developing scholarly and scientific expertise on final disposal is crucially important, Brunnengräber says. After all, the generations to come will have to dispose of highly radioactive waste as safely as possible while revisiting the path to get there on an ongoing basis.
PD Dr. Achim Brunnengräber, Department of Political and Social Sciences / Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU), Freie Universität Berlin, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org