Symposium: ethics & how to involve the public in long-term radioactive waste management

The Netherlands faces a challenge: a permanent solution for the disposal of radioactive waste has to be found. Even though the national government has time, it should take action right now. During this symposium, a fruitful discussion arose among a variety of stakeholders and interested people, about the ethics and challenges of involving the general public in decision-making about long-term radioactive waste management.

Decision-making about long-term radioactive waste management is characterized by technical uncertainties, a very long time horizon, ideas of the public, political preferences, international influences and ethical concerns. What are the ethical issues of long-term radioactive waste management and what is the role of the public in the associated decision-making process? Both the Rathenau Instituut and the TU Delft recently published about this topic and jointly organized a symposium that took place on Wednesday October 28 at the Koninklijke Schouwburg in The Hague.


Photo by Rathenau Instituut








Kick-off of the symposium

Melanie Peters, director of the Rathenau Instituut, kicked off the day by welcoming the variety of people attending the symposium. Her message was clear: we need to have a dialogue about long-term radioactive waste management in order to form a complete picture of the issue, which in turn should form the foundation of future policy. Following Melanie Peters, every EU member state is obliged to formulate a national program for the long-term radioactive waste management For the Netherlands, the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS coordinates this national programme). Marco Brugmans, director of the ANVS, emphasized that the Netherlands has the time (approximately 100 years) to prepare the route to disposal because at the moment, it has a unique and safe central storage. This also means that the ANVS has the opportunity to do it carefully. To do so, the ANVS will set up an advisory group consisting of all stakeholders to do so. The outcome of the symposium will provide an important starting point for this advisory group a unique opportunity to exchange ideas with regard to long-term radioactive waste management.

The remainder of the day was divided in two parts: the first part of the day was about public participation and the associated Rathenau Instituut publication ‘Enabling Participation’ and the second part of the day was about the ethics of nuclear energy, inspired by two publications of the TU Delft, the book ‘The Ethics of Nuclear Energy. Risk, Justice and Democracy in the post-Fukushima Era’ and the volume ‘The socio-technical challenges of Nuclear Energy Production and Nuclear Waste Management‘ of the Journal of Risk Research.

Rathenau Instituut: public participation


Since public participation is part of the national program the Dutch government is in need of insights on how to involve the public in the debate: at what stage should public participation come in and in which form? The Rathenau Instituut, commissioned by the ANVS, looked into this complex question by organizing focus groups, in-depth interviews and a literature study. Annick de Vries, project leader, explained that trust and willingness are key to the success of a participatory approach. The findings of their report show that both trust in the central government and collective willingness to participate are currently limited; therefore steps must be taken to ensure those conditions. The general public should also not be the only party to participate: the government, stakeholders and the scientific community are also important to consider. The participation itself should be organized by using issue-based participation clusters (this concept is based the idea that the degree of participation, the method of participation and associated participants of decision-making about an issue of radioactive waste management may differ).


Time for a discussion!


For a panel discussion Ansi Gerhardsson (Swedish Radiation Safety Authority), Matthew Cotton (University of Sheffield), Anne Bergmans (University of Antwerp) and Arnoud van Waes (Rathenau Instituut) were invited. They were all assigned a statement about public participation and radioactive waste management. Anne Bergmans was asked if she thought it is effective to jointly design a process of public participation, in order to get shared acceptance. She wondered: acceptance of what exactly? It is not a matter of acceptance, but it is rather about ownership of the problem. Another question was if the existing ministries and authorities are e right ones in organize to organize public participation. According to Ansi Gerhardson we are all actors with different roles, we need to define those roles and not limit ourselves to one body. Matthew Cotton argued that the discussion about (public participation on) radioactive waste management is separate from the decision about the future of nuclear energy. We can talk about toxic waste without talking about nuclear energy but we cannot talk about nuclear energy without discussing toxic waste as well. Finally, Arnoud van Waes concurred with the statement that we have enough time ahead of us for the planning, but he emphasized the urgency of starting the preparations right now. We have to reflect upon the agenda and start learning from how other countries deal with for example the site selection. These statements of course provoked a more interactive form so they were evaluated in Open Space group discussions.


Photo by Rathenau Instituut








TU Delft: The ethics of nuclear energy


According to Behnam Taebi (TU Delft), who kicked-off the second part of the day, public participation to increase acceptance is necessary but not enough. We are now looking into multinational solutions for radioactive waste management. Those advocating multinational solutions argue that they should be accepted by the local community. Social acceptance is necessary but not sufficient when proposing multinational repositories. They need to be ethically acceptable. These and many other ethical aspects associated with nuclear energy production and radioactive waste management are at the heart of  two recent publications of TU Delft, namely an edited book on ‘The Ethics of Nuclear Energy’ (Cambridge University Press) and a special issue of Journal of Risk Research on ‘The socio-technical Challenges of Nuclear Energy Production and Nuclear Waste Management’. Involving the public is also about building sustainable relations with future communities according to Anne Bergmans. Any decision on long-term management – including decision not to act – has implications for communities where waste is currently being produced, treated, and (temporarily) stored. It is about the ownership of the problem. Ibo van de Poel proposed another understanding geological disposal, we should treat nuclear energy production and radioactive waste management as a social experiment, an idea that was contested by Charles McCombie (Executive Director of Arius Association) during the discussion. In debating the moral acceptability of nuclear energy technologies and radioactive waste management, we should take into account their uncertain and partly experimental nature. Finally, Sabine Roeser introduced the notion of emotions in risk communication. Emotional responses in decision making about nuclear waste disposal are not signs of irrationality, rather, they can point to important ethical considerations that should be taken seriously.

Facing the future: nuclear waste is here to stay!


Nuclear energy seems to be expanding, so is the radioactive waste problem. In dealing with radioactive waste management we might have the time, but we should also start taking action right now. Ansi Gerhardsson, head of section of the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, also stressed the importance not to delay the decision-making process about radioactive waste, in order to foster societal acceptance for the decisions to be taken.

All the related questions such as the moral acceptability and public participation, but also practical matters such as site selection are rather complex issues. In this symposium we had a fruitful discussion with people from different backgrounds and from different countries. Hans Codée (former Covra director) appreciated the fact that the symposium was not only about technocratic opinions, but also about influences from the social sciences. He hopes this approach will be exemplary for authorities and ministries.

Melanie Peters concluded the day with “radioactive waste is here to stay, so will the discussion about it” and her hope that the ANVS will take up the challenges that were discussed during the day.

With more questions about the ethics of nuclear energy, do not hesitate to contact the TU Delft. With more questions about involving the public in radioactive waste management, do not hesitate to contact the Rathenau Instituut.

Photo by Rathenau Instituut

Photo by Rathenau Instituut