Social distrust: implications and recommendation for spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste management (commissioned report)
Tuler, S. P. and Kasperson, R. E. 2011. Social distrust: implications and recommendation for spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste management. A Technical report prepared for the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Washington, DC: Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Publication Abstract

The management of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and defense high level waste (HLW) is a complex socio-technical systems challenge.  Coordinated, reliable, and safe performance will be required over very long periods of time within evolving social and technical contexts. To accomplish these goals, a waste management system will involve a host of facilities for interim storage and longterm disposal, a transportation infrastructure, and research and development centers. The complexity of SNF and HLW management will also require an array of institutions and procedures. Waste management is multi-institutional, comprising multiple private companies and sectors (e.g., commercial nuclear utilities, trucking and railway companies), multiple government agencies at different levels (local, state, national), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other institutional stakeholders, as well as citizens. At the moment, experience of how this will work is limited.  We are in the realm of social experimentation with institutional arrangements and procedures.
Trust and confidence in these institutional arrangements and procedures are central to discussions of how SNF and HLW can best be managed in ways that are socially and politically acceptable (DOE 1993, NRC 2001, NRC 2003, NMWO 2005, Rosa et al. 2010, Slovic et al. 1991).  For example, a Canadian report argues that “the trustworthiness of the institutions and authorities implementing and monitoring the waste management approach is key to the perception of risk and managing risk in the minds of many citizens. This trust influences public support both directly and indirectly through risk perception, stigma associated with nuclear uses and facilities, and perceived benefits” (NWMO 2005).
No matter how many checks and balances are put into place, no matter how much information is disclosed, no matter how many instruments for monitoring, evaluation, and oversight are implemented there will ultimately be individuals and groups entrusted to make sure “it all works.” Trust and confidence are necessary for stable arrangements in contexts of unequal power, whether in terms of access to information, economic resources, or ability to implement desired actions (Kuhn and Ballard 1999). Stable arrangements, in turn, are essential for the institutional continuity necessary for long-term projects such as the disposal of SNF and HLW. The need for social trust and confidence is typical in principal-agent relationships, in which a person or entity (the agent, such as the Department of Energy) acts on behalf of another (the principal, such as the public). Principal-agent relationships are commonly characterized by the agent knowing more than the principal, the principal needing to rely on information provided by the agent, incomplete monitoring, and the use of complex control mechanisms (e.g., budgets, personnel, and incentives). In addition, social trust can be a means for constructive decision-making, by allowing people and institutions to form expectations in uncertain contexts that enable actions to be taken and accepted as legitimate.
Unfortunately, the principal agencies responsible for nuclear wastes, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, are not trusted by majorities in public opinion polls (e.g., Whitfield et al. 2009) and other assessments (e.g., DOE 1993, DOE 2000).  Social perceptions of mis-steps and failures in government and private parties’ management of nuclear wastes have contributed to long term erosion of trust and confidence (DOE 1993, DOE 2000, Hewlett 1978, Kraft 1996, NRC 2001, OTA 1985, Pijawka and Mushkatel 1992, Rosa and Clark 1999). Reasons include Congressional scrapping of a site selection in the Eastern half of the US, Congressional scrapping of technical integrity and equity provisions in the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments, attempts to coerce Nevada rather than negotiate, failure to clearly define regulatory criteria in advance and then adapt them to fit existing conditions, attempts to re-negotiate or circumvent compliance with cleanup agreements related to HLW at DOE sites, and treating the public as if their concerns are irrational. In short, social distrust is multi-lateral and “widespread in the nuclear waste domain, is deeply seated, reflects broader trends in society, and has a continuing history of events to maintain it” (NRC 2001, pg. 74).
In our view, with this legacy there is little evidence that social distrust in the context of nuclear waste management will soften in the near term, and certainly not within the time frame in which the Blue Ribbon Commission must do its work. This means that the development of a successful disposal program must take place in the context of social distrust. On the other hand, social distrust is not necessarily, by itself, an insurmountable impediment to a successful SNF and HLW waste management system. Institutions responsible for planning and operation can be designed to function in the presence of social distrust, rather than to seek trust before moving forward (NRC 2001, pg. 75). This review develops recommendations for moving forward with SNF and HLW management in a context of social distrust, while also working to regain social trust over the long term. We begin with a short overview of social trust and confidence, including definitions, how it is built and destroyed, and trends in social trust in the US.  We then turn to the implications of dilemmas and trade-offs that arise for the design and implementation of a system that has requirements in addition to trust and confidence. Finally, before presenting recommendations, we discuss requirements for a SNF and HLW waste management system to obtain social and political acceptability and to exhibit a high degree of technical competence in conditions of social distrust.

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