Surfacing support

6 January 2021

It is often forgotten that used fuel disposal programmes around the world continue to make steady progress, usually thanks to bottom-up processes of community involvement. Similar processes could be used to site advanced reactors, too, says Jeremy Gordon.

A WELL-KNOWN EXAMPLE IS Finland, where excavation continues for the deep geologic repository at Olkiluoto, not far from the power plant site. Sharing the same technology and methods is neighbouring Sweden, where the municipal council of O¨sthammar, near Forsmark, recently voted in favour of formal acceptance (but not formal acceptance just yet) of a final repository for used nuclear fuel. France is on its way to that kind of decision at Bure, while in Canada they are investigating in Ignace and South Bruce, and Switzerland is investigating the ground at Trullikon and Bulach.

Even in Japan, two towns in Hokkaido prefecture, Suttsu and Kamoenai, came forward in August and October respectively to express their interest in hosting a used fuel disposal facility.

The latest, though perhaps less surprising, area to join the club is Copeland, a town that lies in Cumbria, near the UK’s Sellafield complex. In early November it announced a ‘working group’ which will liaise with the government and the community to propose an area to examine from a geologic point of view, and the considerations from the social and economic point of view. It is the first such working group in the current UK site search, which replaces another that failed in 2013 when Cumbria county council voted to end its participation in site selection, and withdrew both Copeland and Allerdale with it.

Seven years wasted getting back to where we were before. Even though these processes are long, difficult and prone to sudden failure, they still represent the best available method for site selection. Just compare it to the US used fuel disposal scheme, which decided on Yucca Mountain and then was unable to defend the decision in the face of resistance from Nevada and its senator, Harry Reid. Even though it later achieved the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Yucca Mountain was killed stone dead by zeroed funding under the administration of President Barack Obama in 2009 as part of a quid pro quo with Reid.

It’s no surprise that Nevada, site of many its nuclear weapons tests, was not keen to be the site of America’s waste as well. In fact, it was always highly insensitive for it to be selected, given the absolute insult that nuclear detonations represent to portions of land there — unforgivable for the people who know it as their ancestral homeland.

This is one sharp example of the historical injustices in the history nuclear energy which have never been healed and which stand in the way of widespread support for the technology. These issues can potentially be approached by community-centred engagements akin to selection of disposal sites above. As well as finding willing and enthusiastic communities to host waste, why could they not be used to find the same for power plants?

That possibility underlies the creation of the Good Energy Collective by founders Jessica Lovering and Suzanne Baker. They want to reshape the nuclear energy proposition as well as the technology so that they fit with community needs for equitable access to clean energy and high-quality jobs. The process might be outwardly similar to waste — a conversation about how the community and the facility would mutually benefit each other conducted on the understanding that the community can walk away at any time.

Getting these conversations started usually involves some incentive. The promise of up to $20 million to entertain geologic investigation over a period of a few years has been said to be a strong motivating factor for each of the Japanese towns mentioned. Copeland alike will receive £1 million per year once talks officially begin, rising to £2.5 million per year if geologic investigation starts. Compared to Copeland council’s annual budget of about £10 million, this is fairly significant.

However, these goodies remain many orders of magnitude less than the real prize of securing the facility itself. Karen Wheeler, head of the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management agency managing the process said, “For the successful community, the economic, employment and investment opportunities it creates will be truly transformational... The project will create large scale employment opportunities over decades, well into the next century, as well as major scope for locally based supply chain and businesses.” That would be quite something for Copeland, a town with a population of 68,000 and a motto of “Proud of our past. Energised for our future.”

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 15 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

Jeremy Gordon

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