A Contract Between Science and Society: The Canadian Experience with Nuclear Waste Management

Elizabeth Dowdeswell

[Editor's note: Professor Dowdeswell's article is based on an invited presentation she gave at a joint FIP-FPS sponsored session, "Managing Nuclear Fuels: An International Perspective", held during the April meeting of the APS held in Denver, May 2009.]

How to meet our ever-increasing energy needs in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way is one of the most vexing social and technological questions facing the world today. As energy demand grows, the prospect of climate change is forcing us to face the inevitability of a carbon-constrained world, a situation which has opened the door for discussion about a potential nuclear renaissance. While there are those who advocate that nuclear is at present the only safe large-scale energy source available for base load power, public acceptance of nuclear energy has not been fully embraced. Fears of human error (Chernobyl), technical failure (Three Mile Island), and terrorism are very real in the minds of many citizens. So are concerns about waste management and environmental impact of nuclear power. These citizens cannot be ignored: They have every right to feel secure from accidental radiation releases and proliferation. Perhaps the most challenging issues are the many social and ethical concerns, both real and perceived. Fundamentally, the future of nuclear energy raises questions about how we make good public policy decisions. Responsible management of nuclear energy is a quintessential complex public policy challenge that, if not done well, can instill inspire fear and insecurity in the public or possibly polarize them.  This challenge is only magnified as public trust in governments and institutions erodes while citizens' expectations of being involved in decision-making have become more intense and sophisticated.

In this article I will use Canada's recent policy exercise about nuclear waste to make some observations about approaches to dealing with these social and ethical concerns. I present these thoughts not as a blueprint for other countries to follow but rather because they illustrate an approach that deliberately seeks to strike a bargain between science and society with the goals of benefitting from technology, reducing risk, and respecting the values of our citizens. 

The Context

Canada has more than two million used fuel bundles currently stored on an interim basis at licensed facilities at reactor sites. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was established in late 2002 in response to federal legislation requiring Canada's nuclear energy corporations (Ontario Power Generation, Inc., Hydro-Quebec, and New Brunswick Power Corporation) to create an organization to investigate and develop an approach for the long-term management of their used nuclear fuel. This followed a lengthy and extensive environmental assessment of geological disposal. That assessment concluded that the concept had been adequately demonstrated from a technical perspective, but that it had not been as well established from a social perspective, lacking the required level of public acceptability to be adopted.

We began by asking ourselves, "What would make this attempt different from those of the past?" We decided that the answer might lie in trying to understand the deeply held values of citizens and in reviewing our options through a multidimensional lens that would be in part shaped by citizens themselves. For three years the NWMO had the privilege of engaging with Canadians. I say "privilege" because there is an inherent wisdom among citizens that policymakers would be wise to tap.

Our mission statement was rooted in the concept of sustainable development: To develop collaboratively with Canadians a management approach for the long-term care of Canada's used nuclear fuel that is socially acceptable, technically sound, environmentally responsible and economically feasible. Our analytic framework was integrative and systemic, and featured eight objectives: fairness, public and worker health and safety, community well being, security, environmental integrity, economic viability, and adaptability. One of our main goals was to gather and document the terms and conditions that would make such a project acceptable to our society and to reflect a fundamental understanding and respect for these factors in the project's actual design and implementation. 

During the course of our work we were often asked why we though it necessary to consider the ethical and social issues at all, the implication being that what we must do is simply seek the best technical approach. The answer is that members of the public have a right to be engaged in discussions about matters that affect their lives fundamentally. But it is not just a matter of recognizing rights. It is also about better decision-making. Astute decision-makers, whether in government or the private sector, have come to understand that people who are affected by policies bring special insights and expertise to the discussion. Just as importantly, policies and decisions that are developed in an environment of trust and confidence have a much greater likelihood of being supported by public consensus. Participants who feel as if they "own" the process are more likely to sustain its outcome. The answer also lies in how we as a society manage risk. The NWMO began its study with the understanding that technical and scientific specialists would articulate the nature of the risk and help us understand the technical adequacy of each of the management approaches available. They would also help us understand the impacts each approach might have on the environment and their economic feasibility. Experts could also propose mitigation measures. However, we also strongly believed that the analysis of scientific and technical evidence, while essential, could not be the sole determining factor.

We were also profoundly influenced by the time dimension of this issue. Effectively, we were being asked to develop public policy that would require implementation over a period longer than recorded history. Given the longevity of the hazard it was imperative that we consider explicitly how we might meet our obligations to future generations.

We concluded that values and ethics were absolutely central. Ethical questions rarely have unambiguous or definitive answers. We observed that past attempts to solve ethical questions through technical arguments alone have not been satisfactory. As with any complex issue, trade-offs among competing objectives were going to be inevitable. In order to best determine and then satisfy the primary objectives of a large socio-scientific project such as this, the process had to be transparent, open to input from any and all points of view, and rigorously discussed.  

The underlying philosophy of NWMO was that ultimately it is society at large that  must determine which risks it is prepared to accept. We needed to understand society's views of the benefits, risks and social implications if we were to develop a socially acceptable recommendation. In essence, if the general population concluded, after extensive and informed public dialogue, that there was sufficient assurance of safety, then we would have obtained a "social license" to proceed. 

We listened and learned. Our study process was iterative. Through four phases, each with its own "milestone document" we sought to make transparent our deliberations, to elicit public feedback, to shape and direct subsequent steps in the study, and to test and validate NWMO's observations and conclusions as we developed them. Our analysis used the best science and technology, building on years of study in Canada and internationally. Furthermore, we integrated the input of citizens and specialists through continuous interaction between the analysis and the engagement components of our study.

Our approach was collaborative. We believed that progress in developing social acceptability would only come through genuine dialogue.  Always we sought to bring multiple perspectives to the table to shape each major decision point.  We experimented with a broad range of engagement and dialogue initiatives, including traditional and more innovative approaches. This was an issue that demanded engagement, not just participation; dialogue and not simply debate; and thoughtful deliberation as opposed to simple consultation. Some methods were used to elicit the concerns of stakeholders directly interested in the issue , and various techniques were adopted to hear from a statistically representative cross-section of citizens, including those who would not have otherwise involved themselves in the study. 

Some of the specific methods we employed were 

  • A Roundtable on Ethics involving ethicists from fields as diverse as medicine, biotechnology, business and religion, who met over the course of the study to help identify the ethical issues associated with both the issue and the conduct of the study;
  • A National Citizens Dialogue on values involving deliberative dialogue sessions with a representative cross-section of Canadians to learn about their deeply held beliefs and values;
  • A program of Aboriginal Dialogues designed, conducted and reported on by Aboriginal Peoples themselves;
  • A Scenarios Exercise involving a diverse group of 26 individuals who met over a period of 6 months to explore a range of plausible futures and conditions which might need to be faced in managing used nuclear fuel over the long term.

In parallel, the organization was conducting the necessary scientific and technical analysis of the management approaches. Our work was advanced through the contributions of a multidisciplinary Assessment Team. What differentiated this exercise from so many others was that it was grounded in the basic issues identified by Canadians. The development of a framework for analysis started with guidance from the Roundtable on Ethics about the social and ethical issues that needed to be central while industry experts provided technical information.  The team assessed each of the technical methods against the objectives listed above. They brought rigor and discipline to the consideration of options and illustrated the wisdom of a holistic systems approach to analysis.

Public Response

We found that the public was both capable and pragmatic. While they may lack awareness and knowledge about the characteristics of used nuclear fuel and the technological choices for its management, our experience was that citizens could participate effectively in identifying a path forward. In fact, we found that common ground emerged among citizens and specialists: 

  • They felt a responsibility to deal with the waste we have created and for taking action now. They sought fairness to current and future generations and did not want a legacy to be left for their children;
  • They saw safety and security as pre-eminent objectives;
  • They wanted flexibility to accommodate advances in knowledge and the inevitable technological and societal changes over long timeframes.

The public demonstrated consistently that they are willing and capable of thinking through difficult trade-offs. They understood that decisions would have to be taken in a dynamic and adaptive rather than static manner.

The public instinctively gravitated towards a precautionary approach: they were humble about the state of our current knowledge and uncertainties over time, optimistic about the future and respectful of decisions made today for future generations. They did not shun risk; rather, they sought to manage it in the best way possible with decision-making processes that were phased, adaptive, inclusive and deliberative. We also observed that the public was not prepared to simply delegate responsibility to any one expert or specialist group, including the government: those individuals and organizations were not seen as capable of adequately considering the full breadth of objectives. Only a process which considered diverse views deliberately and transparently would be considered trustworthy of protecting the public interest. The Canadian public defined complementary and inextricable requirements of the socio-scientific contract: safety, fairness and flexibility.

Results and Recommendations

NWMO's response was to propose Adaptive Phased Management: a technical approach of isolation and containment in a centralized underground facility, using a system of multiple natural and engineered barriers married with a management approach that was phased, flexible and collaborative. The committee's report can be found at www.nwmo.ca.

The case we made to government was that Adaptive Phased Management was both responsible and responsive. Adaptive Phased Management commits this generation of Canadians to take the first steps now to manage the used nuclear fuel that we have created. It employs the best available science and technology in pursuit of safety and security, and it provides genuine choice and promotes continuous learning allowing for improvements in operations and designs that would enhance performance and reduce the uncertainties as the years pass. It includes sequential and collaborative decision-making and provides capacity to be transferred from one generation to another. Fundamentally, it is rooted in values and ethics.

Our journey from dialogue to decision reached an important milestone in June of 2007 when the Government accepted our recommended approach. The hard part has now begun. We know that the success of any management approach, no matter how well conceived, will depend on how well it is executed. Matters of implementation were uppermost in the minds of most people that we encountered: they wanted to talk about the decision-making process, what institutions and systems would have to be put in place, and how citizens would be involved on an ongoing basis.  There were calls for strong governance and extensive oversight and clear accountability along with greater and continued opportunity for citizen engagement. We concluded that just as a considerable investment was made in examining and understanding the technical options, so too an investment in examining and developing a process of implementation would be essential. 

Designing the process of site selection is now underway, building on the same collaborative approach we fostered in the study phase. The NWMO envisions that citizens will play a legitimate role in making decisions while at the same time creating conditions for productive movement forward.  Sustained engagement with people and communities—whether they welcome, oppose, or seek modifications to our observations and conclusions—is vital. 

During the study we became profoundly aware of the imperative to earn and retain the trust of Canadians. There is no reservoir of trust and confidence at this time. An industry or government mindset of exaggerated self-confidence or arrogance is no longer appropriate (if it ever was). History has shown that no public or private agency has adequately understood and considered the breadth of objectives important to citizens on this subject, from economic feasibility and environmental integrity to safety, security and fairness. Only a process that deliberately and transparently considers multiple perspectives will be considered trustworthy of protecting the public interest. 

Finally, we humbly acknowledged that there would always be some uncertainties. It is sheer hubris to think that we can anticipate new knowledge and societal change over hundreds of thousands of years. The future will undoubtedly unfold in ways that may redirect the NWMO on its path. But that need not nor should not paralyze us. We are confident that we now know enough to take the first steps. 

Liz Dowdeswell is an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and chairs the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Council of Canadian Academies.  She is a former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme and Under Secretary General of the United Nations, Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment Canada and founding President and CEO of Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization.  e-mail: edowdeswell@sympatico.ca

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.