Let the people speak

3 July 2002

Dealing with radioactive waste requires not only solving a technical problem, but also a societal one. Unfortunately, societal questions cannot be resolved in a laboratory. By Anne Bergmans, Katleen Derveaux, Evelyn Hooft and Liesbet Vanhoof

In 1984, the government of Belgium decided to interrupt sea disposal of low-level radioactive waste. This decision prompted the Belgian agency for radioactive waste and enriched fissile materials — ONDRAF/NIRAS — to launch studies to look for another solution for the final disposal of this type of waste on Belgian territory. These studies, which are still ongoing, have gone through various phases. The sometimes harsh reactions by the public, along with recommendations by independent experts, progressively led ONDRAF/

NIRAS to question its working methodology.

A shallow option

ONDRAF/NIRAS's first study on the final disposal of short-lived low-level radioactive waste considered three options: disposal in old charcoal mines or quarries; shallow-land burial; and deep geological disposal. The final report published in 1990 (NIROND 90-01), concluded that shallow-land burial was the most promising of the three proposed options in terms of technical feasibility, safety, and cost. ONDRAF/NIRAS therefore decided to focus its efforts on surface disposal.

The studies carried out between 1990 and 1993 aimed to assess the technical feasibility of building a surface repository on various types of geological formations. The results were recorded in the NIROND 94-04 report, published in 1994. This report found that surface level disposal of at least 60% of the short-lived low-level radioactive waste produced in Belgium was feasible. It also identified 98 zones on Belgian territory as potentially suitable for hosting such a repository. The multi-disciplinary scientific advisory committee set up by ONDRAF/

NIRAS's board of directors to examine the report issued a positive evaluation, but recommended extending the research to fields related to economics and human sciences.

Far from going unnoticed, the 1994 report was rejected unanimously by all the local councils on the list. To its surprise, ONDRAF/NIRAS had caused a general outcry. Neither the political authorities nor ONDRAF/NIRAS had understood the implications of public opinion, when it came to looking for a favorable geology outside the existing nuclear sites. The publication of NIROND 94-04 had lead to a public standoff.

Sense and sensibilities

The method that ONDRAF/NIRAS had applied aimed to select the future disposal site for short-lived low-level waste on the basis of a scientific approach that had been carefully worked out by its experts. At that time, ONDRAF/NIRAS thought - perhaps rather naïvely - that the actual construction of a repository would cause no problems once it had been proven that the chosen site was, from a technical point of view, one of the best possible choices.

Gradually, ONDRAF/NIRAS realised that important parameters were missing in its mathematical model. A disposal facility would inevitably have economic, social and environmental consequences. Also, the public's reactions were confirming the validity of the committee's recommendations regarding the necessity to take into account the socio-economic aspects of the construction of a final repository. So ONDRAF/NIRAS started to develop a methodology to select the best surface disposal sites among the 98 zones already identified. In addition to the expected geological, hydrogeological, and radiological aspects, this methodology included environmental and socio-economic factors. Unfortunately, these last parameters were impossible to model in a satisfactory way.

In 1995, in an attempt to break the stalemate, the government commissioned a study by ONDRAF/NIRAS on the possible alternatives to surface disposal. The final report, NIROND 97-04, published in 1997, compared surface disposal with deep disposal and prolonged interim storage. On the basis of this report the Belgian federal government opted, on 16 January, 1998, for a final or potentially final solution for the long-term management of short-lived low-level radioactive waste. This decision meant that the prolonged interim storage option was abandoned in favour of either surface disposal or deep geological disposal. The government also wanted this solution to be implemented in a progressive, flexible, and reversible manner.

At the same time, the government entrusted new missions to ONDRAF/

NIRAS, to allow the government to make the necessary technical and economic choice between surface disposal and deep geological disposal. ONDRAF/NIRAS had to develop methods, including management and dialogue structures, to integrate a repository project at the local level. Furthermore, ONDRAF/NIRAS had to limit its investigations to the four existing nuclear zones in Belgium — Doel, Fleurus, Mol-Dessel, and Tihange — and to the local towns or villages that are interested in preliminary field studies.

Local partnerships

Early in 1998, ONDRAF/NIRAS set up a new programme based on a new working methodology. The idea of local partnerships was developed to ensure that every party that could be directly affected has an opportunity to express its opinions. The local partnerships project is an attempt to address the low-level waste disposal siting problem through technical research and development, as well as through interaction with local stakeholders. The partnership concept was developed by researchers from the Department of Social and Political Sciences (PSW) of the University of Antwerp (UIA) and the research group SEED (Socio-Economic Environment Development) of the university of Luxembourg (FUL), on the basis of consultations with ONDRAF/NIRAS. The concept was then discussed with different local stakeholders and, on their recommendations, adapted to meet local needs.

The idea behind the partnership concept stems from the presumption that collective decision making in a democratic environment is always a process of negotiation. Different interests, opinions and values are thereby weighted against each other. This weighing of interests is something that should be done by the stakeholders and not for them. Through participation and dialogue, people establish common ground and enter into coalitions to pursue a common goal.

The technical aspects of the building and safeguarding a low-level radioactive waste repository are but one element in the negotiations. Other elements, such as the socio-economic context of the community concerned, the values, interests and even the emotions of different stakeholders, all play their part in the decision making process. Particular or personal interests should not be disregarded as selfish interests, but should be seen as pieces of a puzzle that shape an entirely different reality once they have been put together.

Bringing all the pieces of the puzzle together is exactly what a local partnership ought to do.

Public involvement

The partnerships are intended to bring the decision making process closer to the public and to lower the threshold for active participation. Since public involvement is crucial in reaching an acceptable solution to the nuclear waste problem, as many stakeholders as possible — from as many different backgrounds as possible — should be invited to participate in the partnership. Local partners should represent different political, economic, social, cultural and environmental movements or organisations within the community.

The partnership, however, should not become just another select club of decision makers. One of its primary tasks is to be open and transparent, to make itself known to the rest of the public and to communicate (preferably in a highly interactive manner) what course of action it is taking.

It is not possible to hold an in-depth discussion of the pros and cons of a low-level nuclear waste repository in the region at public hearings with several hundred people attending. A local partnership should therefore be considered as a representative democracy on a micro level.

A general assembly made up of representatives from all the participating organisations overviews the whole process and decides on the agenda for the actual discussions. The general assembly appoints an executive committee, in charge of the day-to-day management of the organisation. The committee is, amongst many other things, responsible for the coordination of working group activities, decision making on budget spending and supervision of the project coordinators.

In several working groups, all the different aspects of the construction of a low-level waste repository in the community are being discussed. All relevant existing research is taken into consideration, the need for additional studies is evaluated, and independent experts are invited to participate in the debate. The working groups report regularly to the executive committee.

The working groups comprise representatives of the organisations that founded the partnership, as well as individual citizens who have expressed an interest to participate actively in the discussion forum. Since all these people participate on a voluntary basis, at least two full-time project coordinators need to be employed by the partnership. These project coordinators take care of administrative and communication tasks and support the working groups both logistically and scientifically.

Regional or local?

The question as to whether a partnership had to be established on a regional or on a strictly local level has been the subject of much debate. In order to make the threshold for participation as low as possible, a local partnership, in its strictest sense, was agreed upon by ONDRAF/NIRAS and a majority of the local stakeholders. Regional authorities and administrations were not excluded, but their role was limited to an advisory one. In this way, interests that go beyond the municipal boundaries can be expressed, without having a dominant or decisive influence on local decision-making.

It was also considered important that the partnership should have its seat at the heart of the community concerned. A partnership, therefore, is not a field office of ONDRAF/NIRAS, but an independent local organisation in which ONDRAF/NIRAS participates as the only non-local partner amongst a multitude of local stakeholders. A clearly visible presence in the community creates awareness amongst the citizens who do not participate; and the premises of the partnership can serve as an open platform where citizens can come with their questions, remarks or concerns. On a practical level, it also facilitates the meeting of local participants in the discussions, for the simple reason that they do not have to travel too far.

Through dialogue, all interested parties are invited to express their interests, concerns, fears and values, to listen to the views of other parties and to come to terms with what this particular group of citizens, in this particular community, at this time, defines as a common goal. In this way, ONDRAF/NIRAS, in its role of project developer, can enter into direct dialogue with the local community interested in hosting the project. Experts from ONDRAF/NIRAS are given a forum to explain why they consider the proposed low-level radioactive waste repository to be a safe solution. The members of the working groups can then question the ONDRAF/NIRAS experts directly and/or invite other experts, whose opinion they consider relevant. By entering into dialogue with the local community, the designers have an opportunity to better explain their project to the local stakeholders. Questions and reactions from the public, however, may require them to be more creative and to rethink certain aspects of their initial concept or project.

Until the partnership has made its final proposal to the municipal council on whether, and under which conditions, a repository facility in the community would be acceptable, the partnership is the only body where decisions with regard to the potential repository are taken. There will thus be no question of parallel negations on other levels (political or regional). Since ONDRAF/NIRAS has only one member in both the general assembly and the executive committee (albeit with a veto on technical feasibility), it is the local community itself that decides on both technical and social feasibility.


In order to allow the partnership to work independently, each receives an annual budget from ONDRAF/

NIRAS. This budget is managed by the executive committee. It serves to cover general expenses such as the salaries of the project coordinators and operational costs (stationary, telephone bills, mailing, electricity, and so on), as well as logistical support for the working groups. This logistical support — apart from providing coffee and biscuits during working group meetings — allows the volunteers to invite the experts of their choice, to order the studies they think necessary and to pay for site visits or other relevant trips or conferences.

The fact that the partnership budget can be used to order research or studies does not mean that all research activity is paid for by the partnership. ONDRAF/NIRAS pays for all necessary research with regard to the technical and safety aspects of the repository facility. The partnership, however, can decide that they are in need of some additional research in certain areas or that they do not entirely trust the ONDRAF/NIRAS results and want a second opinion. All non-repository related research is paid for by the partnership.

Mutual development

The partnership does not only advise the community council on the repository concept and where it should (or should not) be constructed; through the partnership, the local community can decide on what it considers to be the necessary conditions (technically, environmentally, and aesthetically) for such a repository. Furthermore, within the partnership, an accompanying local project that seeks to bring added value to the community will be developed. The final outcome of the discussions in the partnership should be either that the community decides against the repository project for technical, safety or other reasons, or a mutual project, carried by both local stakeholders and ONDRAF/NIRAS.

When finally a majority, or all, of the parties involved come to an agreement on the project, it is presented to the municipal council. In the end, it is the council that will, with or without an additional public consultation round, decide whether or not to put the municipality forward as a potential host for a low-level nuclear waste repository facility.

Since the final word in the matter lies with the municipal council, it is also essential that council members are fully aware of the implications of their decision. To avoid the risk of conflicting interests between local politicians and the other members of the community, active involvement of political representatives is encouraged.

Partnerships in action

In the three years since ONDRAF/

NIRAS went public with its new approach, two local partnerships have been established in the neighbouring municipalities of Mol and Dessel, and two other municipalities have shown an interest.

Mol and Dessel are located 60km east of Antwerp. Mol measures about 11.418ha and has some 31,000 inhabitants, and Dessel measures about 2.703ha and has around 8500 inhabitants. Since the fifties, several nuclear waste facilities have been active in the region: SCK•CEN, Belgoprocess, Belgonucleaire, FBFC-international, IRMM, Transnubel and Tecnubel.

In Dessel the local partnership, STOLA-Dessel, was founded in September 1999. In Mol, MONA was born in February 2000. In both cases the participants in the general assembly are mainly representatives of "advisory councils". In Belgium, municipalities have several advisory councils that represent different local organisations involved in certain policy areas, such as youth, environment, culture, sports, and so on.

The founding of both partnerships was preceded by a thorough site investigation. A researcher from the university of Antwerp interviewed several representatives of the municipality, in search of potential partners and local input on the potential partnership. In all, over 200 people were contacted, and every possible local organisation that expressed an active interest was encouraged to participate, either directly as a partner, or through the advisory councils. No local organisations or individuals were prevented from participating.

Three technical working groups and one social working group play a key role in the project. The "construction and design", the "environment and health", and the "safety" working groups determine the conditions the repository has to comply with. Finally, the "local development" working group concentrates on the socio-economical added value of the possible repository for the community.

The working groups consist of the organisations represented in the general assembly, as well as individual residents that take a personal interest in the matter. The only working group members that do not have to have a connection to the municipality, are the experts of ONDRAF/NIRAS and of the University of Antwerp — they only have an advisory role.

The size of the municipality is reflected in the size of the local partnerships: STOLA-Dessel has 29 members in the general assembly and 9 in the executive committee, whereas in MONA-Mol there are 36 members in the general assembly and 12 in the executive committee.

On working group level, both partnerships have about 60 members in their four working groups. For practical reasons, the maximum size of each working group was restricted to 15-20 members. No partnership had to refuse candidate members.

Even though the two local partnerships in Belgium are located in neighboring municipalities, both with nuclear facilities on their territory, each municipality has its own characteristics. Some of the differences have to do with the difference in size. Another difference is that environmental organisations are more active in Mol. In Dessel the members seem to be less critical towards the disposal of low-level waste. This might change as the project becomes more explicit. Finally, it is interesting to note

that certain organisations that are active in both municipalities explicitly want to participate in only one of the partnerships.

Lessons learned

Motivated volunteers

The partnership is based on a group of volunteers, who do not receive any remuneration for their attendance in the monthly meetings. Experience shows that the local stakeholders are nevertheless prepared to put in a big effort. The members are driven by a real concern for the well-being of their own community and are thus motivated to give well-founded advice to the local council.

Discussion level

In the composition of the working groups it is important not to have too big a disproportion between the number of nuclear specialists (local people employed at the local nuclear companies) and lay people with an interest in the matter or in the well-being of the community. A disproportionate composition could cause the experts to increase the scientific level of their arguments. This could lead to discussions that are difficult for some people without a solid background in nuclear sciences, and prevent those members from taking the initiative or cause them to drop out of the discussion.

Gaining independence

Specialists are invited by the working groups to provide general information on the relevant topics. To increase the level of credibility, the working groups sometimes prefer to hear other opinions than those given by the ONDRAF/NIRAS experts. Most nuclear experts, however, are somehow related to nuclear organisations. As a result, they are not always considered to be objective. Independent and competent sources are then difficult to find. In Dessel, a university professor in geology was hired to give a critical view on the concept of surface disposal as presented by ONDRAF/NIRAS, and to give technical guidance for a period of six months. Working group members expect ONDRAF/NIRAS to provide complete information and indicate where more research is required.

Total involvement

Communicating with the public is not an easy task. Since only little feedback is given by the locals, the partnership may not be able to identify all community concerns with respect to a possible repository of low-level waste.

Both partnerships have implemented different initiatives to become more widely known in the municipality and to improve the involvement of the local population. First, every four months a newsletter is distributed to the inhabitants of the municipality, the local councils of the neighboring towns, the nuclear companies and members of the local press. In this newsletter information is given on the purpose and the current status of the partnerships. Both local partnerships also have a website (www.stola.be and www.monavzw.be). Here, visitors can find information on the purpose, structure and the activities of the partnership, as well as general information on the municipality and radioactive waste. In addition, the offices are open to the public at regular hours, although so far there have not been many visitors, except for students searching for information for school assignments.

Because of the poor response and few visitors, it is important to keep looking for more effective ways to involve the broader population of the municipality. STOLA-Dessel, for example, remained open for the public during the weekend of the annual fair in the municipality and has organised several events (for example a drawing and writing contest among the five local primary schools). MONA-Mol is present at local events and informs interested local organisations on its activities. The partnerships will continue their efforts to inform and listen to the public.

Current conclusions

Involving many people in a decision making process should lead to a more open, democratic and therefore more acceptable solution, but it also means that the decision making process takes a lot of time. The two years initially estimated turned out to be insufficient to complete the study and the consultation. The partnerships will extend their existence for two more years: one extra year for the working groups to reach their conclusions, and a second year for the project coordinators to write the report in which the local partnership will give its advice to the municipal council.

Both partnerships are still investigating all possible options, so final decisions have not yet been made. Nevertheless, the partnership approach seems to be a promising one. In the technical working groups, plenty of information was gathered and discussed. Concerning both the concept and the location of the repository facility, several options were considered and preferences expressed. In the local development working group, different options for the repository facility to bring added value to the community are being discussed. Over the next months, the pros and cons of possible projects will be weighed against each other and a suggestion will be put before the general assembly.

What the final outcome of this exercise will be is still hard to predict. At present, we can only say that both partnerships are running smoothly, that they both have survived local elections and that, up till now, only a very small number of people have dropped out of the discussions.
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