Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WSU, UW Researchers: Nuclear Power, High-Level Waste Disposal Can’t Advance In U.S. Without Building Trust First

by Matt Rosenberg August 27th, 2010

OVERVIEW: Washington State University sociology professor Eugene A. Rosa is known for his scholarship on issues surrounding public acceptance, or the lack thereof, of nuclear energy facilities and related waste disposal sites. With 15 other experts, including colleagues from WSU and the University of Washington, Rosa recently led the development of recommendations for better public engagement strategies to win needed trust at a time of growing applications for nuclear energy facilities which will add to the country’s stock of high-level waste needing long-term disposal. Their summary was published in the journal Science. The authors argue that proponents of nuclear power and federal authorities must take a more respectful, evidence-based approach toward social and environmental concerns around increased nuclear energy production and waste disposal – rather than starting with a pre-determined outcome and viewing the public as an obstacle to be overcome. The latter “old school” approach, they assert, will doom to failure the current efforts to expand nuclear energy production in the U.S.

KEY LINK: “Nuclear Waste: Knowledge Waste?,” Eugene A. Rosa, Washington State University; James F. Short, Washington State University; Thomas M. Leschine, University of Washington, et al in Science, 8/13/10

Key findings follow.


  • Nuclear power is central to the planned energy portfolios of many nations including the U.S. More than 50 new reactors are under construction globally; 100 more are planned by 2020. Some call this a “nuclear renaissance.” But its success depends on siting, plant safety, costs and liabilities, terrorism threats, and the possibility of weapons proliferation at nuclear plants in certain nations. An big barrier in the U.S. remains; public mistrust of disposal of high-level nuclear wastes, or (HLW), especially spent fuel which despite reprocessing technologies “may remain highly radioactive for a million years.”
  • The current U.S. program for long-term disposal of high-level nuclear waste anticipates use of the Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada, which was supposed to open in 1998 but hasn’t. Opposition grew because water flowed closer to the site than thought. The Obama administration rescinded 2010 funding for the facility and directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to withdraw its license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (That move was rejected in a June ruling by an NRC panel).
  • Meanwhile, applications are pending at NRC for 33 new nuclear reactors, each of which could yield about 25 million metric tons of HLW annually. Additionally President Obama has signaled support for nuclear power with announcements to seek $62.8 billion in loan guarantees the next two years for construction of new nuclear energy facilities.
  • To review waste disposal policy and issues around community buy-in for nuclear facilities, the White House in January 2010 appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission On America’s Nuclear Future. But the commission is “starting from the weak position created by the legacy of past actions…including the mishandling of wastes from military weapons facilities…and loss of social trust.” Trust is key in perception of risk and the nation’s lead agency in advancing nuclear energy – DOE – is “especially mistrusted” and “unable to address this mistrust.”
  • Nuclear power advocates and DOE will need to make sure that an emerging body of knowledge on winning public trust on nuclear siting and waste issues does not itself go to waste. Based on case studies in the U.S., it highlights the need to engage with the public earlier, more thoroughly, and more transparently and frame the challenges societally as much as technically, “in a respectful, evidence-based way.”
  • For example, taken alone, the Blue Ribbon Commission’s required formation of an advisory committee may be seen by many as merely another instance of going through the motions of public accountability without actually delivering accountability. This “runs the risk of exacerbating indifference, mistrust and resistance.” To begin to model new best practices, the commission could create a special subcommittee to develop procedures for more meaningful public involvement in nuclear waste management policy and siting decisions. The authors conclude, “Addressing relevant social issues does not guarantee success, but ignoring them increases the chances of repeating past failures.”

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