Community Consent is Key to Waste Disposal

Episode 3


Thomas Webler

Research Fellow, Social and Environmental Research Institute and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Keene State College

Community Consent is Key to Waste Disposal

In this interview, Tom Webler, an expert in community consent and how it relates to nuclear waste disposal, shares how stakeholders play a critical role choosing a site for nuclear waste disposal.

Note: This transcript is the raw transcript of this podcast. Minimal edits have been made only for clarity purposes.

Thomas Webler (00:00):

We don’t have everybody on board with saying, okay, we want to build one deep geological disposal site. We want to build five sites. We want geographical equity. We want, you know, to manage defense waste differently from civilian waste. There’s all these kinds of questions related to this that we, as a country, haven’t come together on.

Narrator (00:35):

Hello and welcome to Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. A series designed to explore perspectives of nuclear waste disposal. About half a million metric tons of high-level nuclear waste is temporarily stored at hundreds of sites worldwide. No country has established a permanent home for spent commercial fuel. In the US alone, one in three people live within 50 miles of a storage site. That fact may be surprising, but it’s not for lack of technical solutions. Experts worldwide agree that a deep geological repository would be the best final resting place for this hazardous substance. So what’s the delay you as?. The answers are complex and controversial. In this series, we’re interviewing experts and stakeholders representing pieces of this complicated puzzle to give you a clearer picture of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

In this episode, Deep Isolation Communications Manager, Kari Hulac, interviews Thomas Webler, an expert in the social science of collaborative and democratic ways of making decisions that affect the environment. Tom Webler is also an expert in community consent and how it relates to nuclear waste disposal.

At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (02:19):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

Kari Hulac (02:26):

Hello. I’m Kari Hulac, host of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story. Today, I’m talking to Tom Webler, an expert in the social science of collaborative and democratic ways of making decisions that affect the environment. Tom Webler coauthored papers and did analysis for the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He offers suggestions on how to effectively engage stakeholders on how the US government can do a better job informing members of the public when making decisions about the storage and management of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Tom also provided input to the Department of Energy, analyzing consent related to the siting of nuclear waste disposal facilities. Hello, Tom, and thank you so much for joining us today.

Thomas Webler (03:14):

Hello, Kari. I’m glad to be here.

Kari Hulac (03:17):

All right. First off, explain to us the fundamental elements of what consent based decision making means as it applies to nuclear waste disposal.

Thomas Webler (03:27):

Well, that’s certainly diving right into it. I think the first thing we need to keep in mind, that the kind of problem we’re talking about here is what we call collective action problem, right? It’s like, what should we do? We’ve got this problem we want to solve, however you want to define it, but we have to somehow decide what to do. And we have to decide that together, right? So it’s a collective action problem, but it doesn’t mean we need a hundred percent consensus. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree on everything, but you know, we have to have enough of an idea of what, how to move ahead with this. And a lot of people need to be involved in making these, this kind of decision or the decisions around how to manage spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. Right?

Thomas Webler (04:18):

And there’s a lot of different decisions that have to be made if we’re talking about locating a facility in a certain community, that’s usually what we mean by siting. So when we talk about consent-based siting, usually thinking mostly about that community, right. And what they need to, what they need to signify in order to allow a project developer to move ahead with actually implementing a technical solution. I mean, there’s a lot of, a lot of associated questions that have to do with that, right? Like who should be involved in giving consent? That’s a big question. Should it be the community that has the political jurisdiction in which the project cement is actually poured in? What about the transportation communities along the way, if the waste has to move through other communities to get there, what kind of consent should they give? Where should they be in the process? What about neighboring communities? What about the source communities where the spent nuclear fuel is currently located? Right. So there’s a lot of questions about this.

Kari Hulac (05:32):

Okay. That makes sense. That makes sense. So one of the key pieces you wrote for Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, the BRC for short, was a report that made recommendations for how to develop public engagement around nuclear waste disposal. So I think if we dive into that, that will help give a nice example of collective action as you’ve just discussed. So can you summarize those recommendations that you made to the BRC? And then I’m sure in doing that, you looked at some past failures in stakeholder engagement. So let us know how that informed your recommendations for how we can do better in the future.

Thomas Webler (06:15):

Right. So my work for the BRC was done in collusion with my colleague, Seth Tuler and Eugene Rosa. We kind of all communicated together about this. And we also, with a bunch of other social scientists had a piece in Science Magazine called Nuclear Waste: Knowledge Waste? about this issue. So a lot of people have been thinking about it, not just me. I build on a lot of work from other people. We advise them that there needs to be some sort of national consensus on the definition of the problem and the preferred technical solution. So we’ve seen this and a lot of countries have said, we want the geological disposal, right? This is the solution that’s been preferred, but we haven’t had in this country a kind of national conversation about, about this. And seems to me that this is one of the biggest problems we face right now is that we don’t have everybody on board with saying, okay, we want to build one deep geological disposal site. We want to build five sites. We want geographical equity. We want, you know, to manage defense waste differently from civilian waste. There’s all these kinds of questions related to this, that we have a country, as a country haven’t come together on yet. And without that, it’s really hard to envision how to move forward. And we were really hoping that the BRC would have done that. But it didn’t really recommend how to move forward with that.

Kari Hulac (07:59):

Would you say that’s how the BRC kind of missed its mark, so to speak? It should have gone more further, laid out a more specific plan for next steps.

Thomas Webler (08:12):

Yeah, I think it is. And we’ve seen, you know, recent legislation proposed by Dianne Feinstein, for example, they defined consent just as support by the local elected leaders. Right? This is, and this is not thinking very deeply about consent. I mean, that’s kind of where you would go with your first answer, right? What does consent mean? Oh, the County commissioners or the city council voted for it, that’s what they mean by consent, but we have to think, realize that that’s probably not sufficient for a problem of this magnitude, not just magnitude in terms of potential risks and hazard, but also longevity. The commitment that a community is making to host this facility for basically as long as we can imagine human civilization continuing. So the elected officials we’ve got now were probably elected because of whatever, a school board mission or a bond question or a new highway development, something like that.

Thomas Webler (09:23):

They weren’t elected to make decisions about permanent high-level, deep, high-level nuclear waste disposal facilities. So I think we need to think a little more deeply about who can give consent than just saying it’s the elected officials. So that’s one place the BRC I think could have taken it further. Another thing about the BRC that we’ve talked about was trust that we tried to emphasize the failures of previous efforts by the Department of Energy and focusing on nuclear issues, really the DOE or including their weapons production programs, you know, the nuclear weapons production sites and the cleanups on those sites. And of course the attempts to site, you know, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. So there have been a lot of efforts by their Department of Energy over time. And many of these have been, let’s say underperforming, right?

Thomas Webler (10:33):

They have often ended up decreasing public trust in the Department of Energy and in the federal government at large, they’ve created a lot of stakeholder opposition. They’ve created a tremendous amount of locally driven activist-oriented, highly educated activists and local sites who now basically don’t trust anything that the DOE or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say, right. They are constantly on their backs and it’s created an environment of extreme distrust. And that’s very hard to get out of this. Something we call the asymmetry of trust. Trust is very easy to lose and it’s very hard to gain. And so the experiences that we’ve seen in the past, while DOE has done some good things, especially with the site-specific advisory boards of the nuclear waste production sites. We’ve seen some, we saw some nice progress there and how they interacted with those boards more effectively over time and did came community trust, but that took years and years and years. And I’m sorry to say that a lot of the history has not been that positive.

Kari Hulac (11:51):

That is tough, especially for companies like Deep Isolation and who want to do something about this problem. I mean, what advice would you give to us and to others in the communities who do want to resolve this issue? I mean, what, what is the path forward to, to get past this lack of trust?

Thomas Webler (12:17):

Well, moving forward into… The most important things we can do… Well, trust basically is composed of several characteristics. One is caring. You’ve got to demonstrate that you truly care about the other parties with whom you’re interacting. So the most important thing there is obviously to demonstrate the safety case. This is utterly important that there be safety criteria that are never violated, that are transparent, and clearly are not violated. So caring, that’s number one. Number two is commitment, which means a commitment to a shared definition of the problem, a commitment to the same values set that we’re going to operate while we’re trying to solve this problem, which is mutual effect. Mutual respect, I mean. And making, making decisions on technical evidence, not on emotions or ideologically driven decisions. And so on. The third thing is …caring, committed… competence, which means doing what you do well, right?

Thomas Webler (13:35):

And fourth is prediction. Predictability. These are the four characteristics of trust. Predictability means that you follow through with what you say you would do, that the parties can anticipate your next move because you’ve been consistent. It doesn’t mean that you’re stuck into one mode of thinking and acting and you never learn or change. It does mean you can learn and change, but that your actions are predictable in the sense that what another party would consider a reasonable, reasonable thing to do. So these four things make up trust. We don’t have that today. We’re lacking that. So anybody who wants to move ahead with this, whether it’s DI, Deep Isolation, or it’s some other Department of Energy or government independent institution, it’s going to have to specifically understand that it needs to make progress on all those things and it needs to do so in an environment that’s highly distrust, full of distrust. And so we have this asymmetry of trust. It’s easy to lose. It’s hard to get. The most important thing that a institution could do to earn trust is to give the community the power and authority to close down, turn off an operation, a facility with no penalties or negative consequences. But having a strong corporate culture of integrity and honesty would be vital.

Kari Hulac (15:11):

Well, and you touched on that earlier about the lack of national consensus on a solution. Deep Isolation’s perspective is there is scientific consensus on the deep geological burial, but like you say, that has to be embraced by the nation, the government, and all the other stakeholders. What, what have you seen, or what would you recommend in trying to reach that consensus on the technological solution to get there? I mean, that’s, it seems like a big step.

Thomas Webler (15:44):

Yeah. Well, this was the first thing that Canada did. That they had what’s called the Seaborn Panel. And Seaborn was a guy who ran the panel and they went around Canada and held public meetings to talk about here’s our problem. We’ve got all this stuff we’ve made. We don’t want to keep it above ground anymore. What should we do with it? Shoot it into the sun, whatever, you know, put it in the bottom of the ocean. You know, they go through all the possible solutions and they talked about it. They brought in experts and they listened to people and people kind of sat around and said, you know what? This is what makes most sense for Canada, a deep geological repository. And I think, you know, what we recommended to the BRC that the United States should have a similar discussion like that. I think if you give everyone a chance to have their say, and then you come to a reasonable decision together, the kind of it’s, it allows a lot of groups to say, we’re moving on. Okay. We talked about that. We decided we’re not going back there.

Kari Hulac (16:53):

So here we are eight years after the BRC report was issued and still we’re still struggling with this. Can you give us any perspective and bring us up to speed? Why there hasn’t been any implementation? It sounds like, you know, with the Canadian example, there’s good, you know, a good case right there for at least getting the discussion started about the solution. So what’s going on there?

Thomas Webler (17:18):

So the Department of Energy actually set up a consensus-based siting program in the Office of Nuclear Waste, right? And they were developing this. I did a little work for them in order to try to think about how we start to put these ideas into practice. They started holding community-based meetings to hear what the public thought about consent-based siting. And I thought they were doing a pretty good job of that, going out, listening. They weren’t saying, Hey, we’ve sat in our offices in Washington and we’ve decided this is consent-based siting, right? They said we’ve got some ideas. We’re going to come out, listen to the public, listen to stakeholders, do a lot of listening. That’s what the Seaborn Panel in Canada did. I thought they were on the right track with that. But then of course we have an election in 2016, then like so many things, we retrograded back to old solutions and they closed down that whole office. All those webpages are gone. All the learning that happened on consent-based siting has been either erased or mothballed somewhere in the archives of the Department of Energy. So again, what are we doing? What are we agreeing to do as a country?

Kari Hulac (18:36):

So given all this that we’ve discussed today, is it hard to feel optimistic about their future? Or what do you, what work are you doing right now with this? What, what do you advise as the next best steps for us as a nation or for us, Deep Isolation, in private industry? What, what do you think moving forward?

Thomas Webler (18:59):

Look, one of the big problems is you’ve got to make sure that there’s not going to be political gamesmanship. You know, we have, you know, there was some reasonable plan under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which just all went awry after the politicians got involved in it, right. They were supposed to propose several deep repository sites and in different parts of the country, there was this idea of equity. Somehow that they’d been, you know, wasn’t just going to be one site at Yucca Mountain, right, there were going to be several of them. And then all that got changed when Congress got involved. So, you know, you need a promise that Congress is not going to get involved. And, you know, personally, I think Congress needs to set up, tell the DOE to do something, set up an independent body. That’s isolated from any congressional or presidential executive branch manipulations. Operates completely independently, even more independently than the Fed, but nowadays we don’t even see any independence at the Fed or any of these places. Right. Everything’s kind of been controlled now by the executive branch. So ideally you’d want to set up some sort of independent body and then that body would have to move forward with establishing national consensus and kind of a plan for action.

Kari Hulac (20:26):

Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Tom, and I want to thank everyone who tuned in to this episode of Nuclear Waste: The Whole Story.

Thomas Webler (20:36):

Thanks Kari. Nice talking to you.

Narrator (20:40):

Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and feel free to send any comments or suggestions to You can visit to learn more. At Deep Isolation, we believe that listening is one of the most important elements of a successful nuclear waste disposal program. A core company value is to seek and listen to different perspectives on the matter of nuclear waste, nuclear energy, and disposal solutions.

Narrator (21:24):

The opinions expressed in this series are those of the participants and do not represent Deep Isolation’s position.

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