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Hosting a Nuclear Facility: Mayors Discuss Role of Community Engagement – IAEA

Photomontage of the planned site of the spent fuel repository at the Forsmark site in Östhammar Municipality in Sweden. (Photo: SKB)
Photomontage of the planned site of the spent fuel repository at the Forsmark site in Östhammar Municipality in Sweden. (Photo: SKB)

Irena Chatzis, IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy

EnergiesNet.com 11 03 2023

Engaging local stakeholders through transparent and open dialogue is pivotal for the success of nuclear projects. Engagement requires time, trust-building and adaptability as expectations evolve. In many places, communities that initially expressed scepticism or opposition have become advocates because of this engagement and better understanding of what it means to host a nuclear facility.

“The nuclear industry in Canada provides tens of thousands of high paying jobs, provides medical isotopes around the globe and, for Ontario, generates a significant amount of reliable, affordable, low carbon electricity,” said Adrian Foster, Mayor of Clarington in Canada. “As a host community, we enable all of these benefits, and we take pride in that.”

The IAEA recently hosted a meeting in Vienna that brought together leaders of nuclear facility host communities, representatives of facility operators, safety authorities and government officials from some 50 countries to share experiences in fostering positive relationships with local stakeholders. A group of host community representatives also met with IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, who recognized the need for open engagement with stakeholders if low carbon nuclear energy is to achieve its potential in the clean energy transition.

Nuclear energy stands on a robust technical and safety foundation, but misconceptions and concerns persist, particularly about nuclear waste. The IAEA supports countries in their efforts to engage stakeholders in activities that span the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to nuclear power plant construction and decommissioning, up to waste management, through publications, conferences, expert missions and technical meetings as well as the Safety Standards.

Mayor Rebecca Casper of Idaho Falls in the United States of America, home to the Idaho National Laboratory, highlighted how an initially fraught public dialogue has positively evolved over time.

“A dialogue that was formed through distrust and even some anger has transformed into one that is now based on collaboration over improving future outcomes,” Caspar said. “The form of engagement also has changed from press releases and ad-hoc public meetings to a schedule of regular, face-to-face meetings and forums. I believe regular interaction facilitates ongoing attention and understanding as problems emerge or plans change.”

Countries initiating nuclear power programmes also contributed to the discussion, including Lilian Matu of the Kenya Nuclear Power and Energy Agency. “In Kenya, the local communities have different languages, cultures and norms that lead to communication barriers,” Matu said. “Hence, it is important to undertake a contextual analysis of the community before any engagement and understand their languages, interests, beliefs and perceptions.”

Participants also noted the important distinctions between hosting research reactors and nuclear power reactors or radioactive waste facilities, as each of them has different purposes, opportunities and risks. Casper compared discussions about waste storage versus new technologies and their potential economic and environmental benefits. “It can be much easier to create a public dialogue that is based on future opportunity than one based on measured risk,” she said.

Fabian Sjoberg is Mayor of Östhammar, which hosts both nuclear power reactors and the future spent fuel repository in Sweden. “Östhammar is in favour of hosting nuclear facilities because we are, and have always been, an industrial municipality. For most people, the nuclear industry in our municipality is like any other industry,” Sjoberg said.

However, establishing a nuclear facility such as geological repository for spent fuel takes time, and it is something final that will stay in the community forever, bringing additional challenges for local engagement and outreach.

“Some may say that the progress is slow, but if so, it is because the nuclear community, engineers and scientists, are taking every precaution to do this right,” said Olena Mykolaichuk, Head of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology. “The perception may be that nothing happens because we don’t know what to do, but the truth is different: it happens slowly because we do know what we are doing.”

National support is crucial for host communities, and formal associations can facilitate this, promoting knowledge exchange and cooperation among host communities. Associations, such as the Canadian Association of Nuclear Host Communities and the US Energy Communities Alliance, provide valuable insights, connections to national leaders, and avenues for positive changes in laws and regulations, according to participants.

Sjoberg, who also serves as Vice Chair of the Group of European Municipalities with Nuclear Facilities in Europe, emphasized the importance of municipalities conducting their own studies and research. “Doing this in a way that strengthens the process requires external funding for the municipality,” he said. “But without the support and engagement from the local government and listening to its citizens, it’s impossible to have a successful process, and the time will instead be spent handling upset communities.”

The October meeting was the latest effort by the IAEA to support national initiatives to strengthen stakeholder engagement and outreach related to nuclear power programmes. Last April, the Agency hosted a first-of-a-kind workshop on reimagining nuclear energy. It brought together more than 60 participants from 32 countries including from academia, government and industry to explore creative and innovative ways to engage stakeholders on nuclear energy, which provides a quarter of all low carbon electricity.

“Meetings like this provide a platform for sharing experiences and discussing challenges in different countries but also for constructive thought evaluation on what is working, what is not and how best to improve,” Matu said.

iaea.org 11 03 2023

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