Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report



5.1 The importance of public acceptability is widely recognised: many witnesses told us that, however well founded the safety case in the view of experts, no progress would be made without public acceptability (e.g. the Environment Agency p123, Gosforth Parish (Cumbria) Action Group pp143-144). Nirex told us (p 319) the chief requirement is for a proposal which is "in a form which is workable and wins public acceptance".

5.2 Overseas the need for public acceptance has been widely recognised. Sir John Knill highlighted the relative success in Finland and Sweden where work had been undertaken on public acceptability and "an atmosphere was created within which there has been real achievements" (p 195, Q 1005). The Committee visited the US, Canada, Sweden and France, where public acceptability has also been addressed. In Canada in 1978 the Federal and Ontario Provincial Governments set up a programme to find a permanent repository for nuclear fuel waste. It was agreed that the selection of the site of the repository would not begin until after a formal public review. That review[42] concluded that broad public support is necessary to ensure acceptability of a concept, and "safety is a key part, but only one part, of acceptability. Safety must be viewed from two complementary perspectives: technical and social". Applying these criteria the Canadian review panel concluded that while safety had been adequately demonstrated from a technical perspective, from a social perspective it had not.

5.3 The technical problems in Canada are very different from our own. There is no legacy of weapons manufacture and they have elected not to reprocess spent fuel. Therefore Canada does not have the intermediate level wastes associated with reprocessing, nor the problem of managing separated plutonium. But Canada has over twenty nuclear reactors in service, has historic wastes associated with the long term operations of radium and uranium refining, and has to deal with uranium mine and mill tailings (about 200 million tonnes of these tailings have been generated since the mid 1950s). Despite the technical differences, much of the Canadian analysis has parallels in the United Kingdom. The Canadian conclusion was that work should not proceed until what the panel called "the social issues" had been further addressed. Exactly what criteria should be used to define acceptance were not specified in the report.

5.4 In the United States a good level of acceptance has been established locally at the proposed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site at Carlsbad in New Mexico. Here it is proposed to dispose of "transuranic waste", primarily plutonium contaminated materials. But a lack of widespread national acceptance of waste management plans has given rise to difficulties over the transportation of the waste to the site. The Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, an evaluation of a potential repository site for spent nuclear fuel and other forms of high level radioactive waste, is considerably less advanced. The decision to embark on this work was primarily at the direction of the US Congress and has been subjected to intense opposition from the local community. There are also objections at the federal level from agencies responsible for health, safety and environmental standards. A lack of public acceptance is a major stumbling block at Yucca Mountain, where there are also outstanding technical issues.

5.5 France, which like the UK has a legacy of nuclear waste from both civil and defence programmes, has, unlike the UK, nearly 80 per cent of its electricity generated by nuclear power. The same spectrum of views about nuclear matters exists but, perhaps because of the greater dependence on nuclear power, there is less controversy about nuclear facilities and there seems a greater recognition by the public of the need to deal with waste management issues. The French government also has programmes established specifically to improve the public acceptability of waste facilities (see para 5.37).

5.6 Sweden has had an underground repository at Forsmark for short-lived low and intermediate waste in operation since 1988. By any standard this is a significant achievement, although the Swedish waste disposal problem is inherently more straightforward than our own. The Swedish Government had no weapons programme and has elected not to reprocess spent fuel and therefore Sweden does not have the intermediate level waste associated with reprocessing, nor the problem of managing separated plutonium. The public has confidence in the regulators, which may stem in part from the existence of freedom of information laws: allegations of secrecy rarely seem to be levelled at the Swedish nuclear industry and even less frequently at the regulators.

5.7 But even with the history of public confidence in the regulators, the absence of a nuclear waste legacy from past military programmes, a more straightforward waste management programme with the absence of reprocessing, and ten years' operational experience with an underground repository, Sweden has not yet gained public acceptance for a deep geological disposal facility for spent fuel.

5.8 For the last six years the Swedish Government has had in place a well-developed government programme, financed by the industry, to gain public acceptance at a local level for its nuclear waste plans. Moreover, any proposal in Sweden is subject to local referendum, which gives the local community the right of veto. On the last occasion that a local referendum was taken the proposal was lost only narrowly. It seems likely that the public confidence necessary to win approval for a proposal to build a deep repository on another site will be forthcoming in the not too distant future.


5.9 Finding publically acceptable solutions to complex technical issues is not straightforward. One witness observed that on most things the public does not think anything until it is forced to do so (Hawkes Q1488). Another witness said that "….the public should not be expected to have an opinion. There are many things for which quite legitimately the public looks to Government to make up the mind of 56 million people. Nuclear energy is a matter that is largely in Government hands and is a matter for Government decision" (Fishlock Q1489). These witnesses were clear that it is the job of those in power to take the decisions necessary for the sound management of nuclear waste. If those people are trusted by the public they will be allowed to get on with the job. Government is seeking acceptance by the majority, recognising that there may still be vocal opposition from minorities. Acceptance by the public does not imply one hundred percent endorsement.


5.10 It is quite frequently the case that people will support the construction of a large facility, a major airport or large out of town shopping centre, for example, whilst also arguing that it should not be placed in a certain location e.g. "not in my back yard". The disposal of nuclear waste confronts both sets of issues: securing general acceptance of the principles underpinning an approach to the management of nuclear waste and securing local acceptance to the selection of disposal sites. Many people will go along with the concept as a general principle but object when it affects them directly.

5.11 At present it is not clear that the first prerequisite has been achieved and we discuss in the following sections some of the elements necessary to build up public confidence in a policy for nuclear waste management. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for securing agreement at a local level: the generality must be translated into local acceptability somewhere.


5.12 The public will accept the decisions of Government and institutions if it feels confident in placing its trust in the individuals, the organisations and all the parts of the process that lead to those decisions. The organisational structure must be one in which the public can see that its interests are well protected, and all the elements of that structure must be seen to be operating fairly. Establishing such trust is difficult and takes time: if it is lost, regaining it is likely to be even harder and to take much longer.

5.13 Surveys of public opinion about environmental issues show that the public in Britain has less trust in government scientists than in those working for environmental organisations. A MORI poll in 1997 on environmental attitudes showed that the proportion of the public expressing "a great deal" or a "fair amount" of confidence in scientists working for Government was 44%, whilst the corresponding figure was 47% for scientists working in industry and 83% for scientists working for environmental groups.[43]

5.14 In 1998, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's 21st report[44] commented that "there is nevertheless much evidence that trust has been eroded. When major and widely-publicised issues arrive (such as … the disposal of waste from the nuclear industry), public opinion about the nature and extent of the risks they pose may turn out to be at sharp variance with the assessments that have been made by those with official responsibility for environment protection". In general, the public has a propensity to believe statements from environmental organisations that there are significant risks and to disbelieve Government statements that risks are negligible. Professor Wynne (University of Lancaster) told us that expert bodies had not taken the institutional trust dimension seriously enough (P 411).


5.15 Dr Pidgeon from the University of Wales explained that disposal of nuclear wastes has almost all the negative characteristics as far as its perceived risks are concerned. The risks are not voluntarily accepted at the level of the individual; the benefits and the costs are not seen clearly alongside each other; the nature of some of the risks (e.g. cancer) have a particular dread factor; and the degree of risk is subject to uncertainty, to which the public has a particular aversion (Q 872).

5.16 Although it is a relatively new field of study, there has been considerable academic debate recently over public tolerance or acceptance of different types of risk. Some of this general discussion was rehearsed in the evidence we received, although most comments focused on the specific issues raised by the long time scales involved. The UKAEA told us that there was substantial agreement on the standard of safety acceptable, and that safety now and in the future can be defined quantitatively in terms of risk (p 315). However, the BGS (p 32) said that it is unreasonable to expect that an assessment of risk made now will remain unchanged.

5.17 The National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) advocates a risk "constraint" of one in a hundred thousand per year for any individual who could be exposed to radiation from a closed waste disposal facility. The risk referred to is that of the individual incurring fatal cancer or passing on to his or her children a serious hereditary defect. NRPB considers that 1 in 100,000 is the maximum risk which should be tolerated from a waste repository and further recommends the use of a risk target of one in a million per year in repository design. "The (1 in a 1,000,000) design target represents a level of individual risk which is widely regarded as acceptable" (NRPB p218). RWMAC (p 258), Nirex (p 325), BNFL (p 38), UKAEA (p 315), the DETR (Q 56), and others in the nuclear industry all defended the one in a million (10-6 ) risk level.

5.18 Most of those who supported the 10-6 criterion argued that it would continue to be acceptable. Some witnesses, however, argued that a change of attitude may well occur if current trends continue. "As the hazards of life have diminished in industrialised society, reflected by increasing life spans, the tolerance of risk, particularly risk associated with technology, has diminished" (The Royal Society, P367). Dr Loomes made a similar point (Q 878). Greenpeace said that we know nothing about the view that future generations might take; "all we do know is that the levels of radioactivity which are deemed to be acceptable during the lifetime of the nuclear industry have progressively declined" (Q 434).

5.19 We received much evidence on the public's view of risk and the need to put figures in perspective. For example Gosforth (Cumbria) Parish Council noted that a rational assessment of risk by the public would be difficult when the Government accepted smoking (1 in 200 risk of death from smoking related disease), but legislated against selling beef on the bone (p 149) (where the risks of contracting CJD are likely to be much less than 1 in 500,000 but are less well characterised).

5.20 QuantiSci (pp 245-246), the Health and Safety Executive (p 162) and Golder Associates (p 141) said that numerical estimates should form only part of the risk evaluation and should be treated with caution because very few people have sufficient understanding of what the numbers represent. Similarly, the DETR said that risk estimates should form only part of the safety case, although they were useful in shaping engineering concepts (Q 55). Dr Couples warned that lumping performance parameters together could obscure the significance of a single element which might be critical "and would not be recognised by someone who did not have a complete grasp of the entire model…and who would?"(pp 98-99). Professor Wynne argued that abstract figures of risks like these are not meaningful to the public. Cumbria County Council and others said that risk assessments of storage or disposal will need to be more effectively explained and made accessible to a lay audience (e.g. pp104, 113).

5.21 Some of the characteristics that affect public perception are easier to change than others, but the idea that "there is a public perception out there" that can be easily changed "by providing information or a publicity campaign, just does not work" (Pidgeon Q 864). Indeed according to Dr Loomes from the University of Newcastle "were the Government to find the right way of putting across…the truth about these things" there would still be a difficulty because "in many of these sorts of areas there is no obvious and uncontested truth" (Loomes Q864). Nonetheless perceptions can change: "we observe that people's perceptions change very rapidly in relation to events such as media stories" (Dr Pidgeon Q865).

5.22 Dr Loomes told us how the public attitude to nuclear risk tended towards the catastrophic: "I think many members of the public suspect that there is a very substantial possibility of human error, negligence or something of the kind which may be left out…. The other possibility is that members of the public may just have very different values about the nature of the losses that are involved" (Q 851). Dr Loomes said that public misconceptions should be identified and genuine public values should be taken into account when framing policy, but admitted that this was extremely difficult to do (Q 851).


5.23 A key requirement in any programme intended to increase public trust is openness. Many witnesses expressed the need for openness on regulatory matters; for example the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) was cited by the National Steering Committee of Nuclear Free Local Authorities as a good example of openness (Q 403-404). SEPA thought that its present structure, where most meetings are held as open fora, allowed open, transparent decision making and enabled the public to "participate meaningfully in this process"(p 276). The Environment Agency told us that most of its regional and local area committees were open to the public and, although its main board was not, a summary of its business was published on the Agency's Web pages (Q 615). The Health and Safety Executive told us that the public was involved in all of its major inquiries into nuclear sites, and inspectors report regularly to representatives of the public at local liaison committees (Q 694-696).

5.24 Various witnesses said that the nuclear industry is not open enough, despite improvements in recent years. Copeland Borough Council described how they had been unable to obtain some information on the Nirex proposal until it reached the RCF Public Inquiry. Others described to us the need to ensure scientific papers are published and subject to peer review (eg Greenpeace Q 497). Nirex acknowledged that it had been severely criticised in the past and that their aim in future was to be seen as not secretive (Nirex Q1396). There were criticisms of the Nuclear Installations Act, which contains no provisions for HSE to consult the public on variations of nuclear site licences (eg pp221-222), and of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which only allows HSE to release information when an industry organisation gives its permission. An example of the restrictions under the latter Act was when UKAEA felt that an HSE inspector's report would be commercially damaging and HSE could not make the report public until many months after it had been written[45]. There was considerable criticism of the secrecy of MoD on nuclear waste matters (eg CND, pp53-55)

5.25 We were told in Sweden that their tradition of freedom of information, dating back to 1766, had established a basis of trust whereby the public understood that it could always obtain the relevant information if needed. In practice this meant that rarely did members of the public seek information themselves; they placed their trust in their elected representatives and regulators to do what was necessary on their behalf. Freedom of information is a broader subject than we wish to address here but it is clear that where people are concerned about risks, secrecy can be counterproductive.

5.26 There should be a general presumption of disclosure, openness and transparency. This is a necessary condition for achieving public trust. The RCEP[46] concluded that "bodies setting environmental standards must operate in an open and transparent way. There must be full publicity for their existence, their terms of reference, the decisions they take and the reasons for them. There must be adequate opportunities for those outside an institution, especially those with a particular interest in the given decision, to contribute fully to the decision making procedure".

5.27 Openness is not without cost. In matters such as the selection of a prospective site for storage or disposal of nuclear waste we were told that the fundamental problem underlying a commitment to an open, honest and transparent process is planning blight (Grant Q1276). This difficulty cannot be avoided: it is part of the price of openness (see paragraphs 5.36 and 5.43).


5.28 We briefly examined the influence that the media has in providing information and influencing public opinion. Where people have no personal experience, for example of radioactivity, undoubtedly the media can play a role in forming public opinion (Hawkes Q1465). Normally the newspapers and television are the first places where people learn about these issues, and the way in which the stories are couched can set the development of public attitudes.

5.29 Nuclear waste was the subject of some considerable media attention during the course of our enquiry. There was reporting on clean up plans for the Dounreay waste shaft and an incident leading to the closure of the reprocessing facility there; on Britain's acceptance of a small amount of nuclear waste from Georgia in the former Soviet Union; and on pigeons that have spread radioactive material from the Sellafield site. None of these stories showed the nuclear industry in a favourable light. The Royal Society commented that the media tend to give a story a sensational angle (Q 910, Q 912), but witnesses who spoke to us about risks said that the media were only part of the process through which public perceptions become formed (Pidgeon Q 865). One witness considered that, on many issues where there really is no public opinion, the reporter's tendency is to take the views of a small number of people who are talking loudly as representing a large number of people with more moderate opinions (Hawkes Q1464). Mr Hawkes explained that a pressure group that specialises in a particular subject has a well-formed opinion that is generally quite well argued with supporting data (Q 1645).


5.30 We examined one area where the public perception of risk and the action that should be taken seemed at odds with the scientific assessment: the experience of Shell in the disposal of its Brent Spar oil rig in the North Sea. The conclusion of both the company and Government experts was that the preferred option for decommissioning the rig was deep-sea disposal. But a campaign by Greenpeace and others in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany led to the abandonment of this policy in favour of an alternative use.[47]

5.31 Following the abandonment of its original proposal (still considered by many to represent the best environmental option), Shell established a process whereby the company could open up a discussion with interested parties. Mr Faulds, from Shell, observed that the "traditional decide, announce, defend" process had now changed to "show me" (Q 1298), where explanation and discussion of the options preceded the decision. He explained that it is not practical to consult directly with the public in a wide sense on a complex technical issue (Q 1305), but a means had to be found to assess views. Shell brought together balanced audiences which were not dominated by industry, green or other groups: they included political interests, unions, the church, academic interests etc, with no one group dominant (Q 1319). Shell was not seeking to establish a consensus (Q 1309) but was asking the group what criteria it would use in making a judgement on the relative priority of the issues put before it. The company's role was to listen; it still had to make its own decision. "We do not think that either industry or Government can abdicate its responsibilities for making decisions" (Mr Faulds, Q1306). The process described by Mr Faulds, which was put in place after Shell had been forced to abandon its original plans for Brent Spar, is an example of attempts to build an understanding of the issues with key sections of the public.

5.32 The technique used by Shell is only one of those now being tried. The Cabinet Office has formed a "Peoples' Panel"[48], there has been one consensus conference and another is planned, and other countries have used citizens' juries and deliberative polls. As the RCEP point out in their 21st report[49], when judgements are made about environmental issues "decisions must be informed by an understanding of people's values". None of the new techniques is a means of achieving compromises between extremes or of taking decisions. They enable constituencies of opinion formers to be built which have a deeper understanding of the issues, and provide decision-makers with valuable information. National issues, such as the management of nuclear waste, must remain matters for Government decision.


5.33 We discussed in paragraphs 5.10-5.11 the distinction between national and local issues. If handled with sensitivity, enough confidence in Government's chosen policy for nuclear waste management may, over time, be established at the national level. Such national acquiescence in the overall policy is a necessary condition to proceed but agreement must also be reached locally on specific site proposals.

5.34 Many witnesses hoped that the technique for building public trust could establish a consensus which would overcome local planning difficulties. The RWMAC agreed with the findings in the POST report that the Town and Country Planning procedures created great difficulty for repository development (p 251). The BGS (p 31), the UKAEA (QQ 244-251), the Environment Agency (Q 548) and other witnesses told us that the site selection process must seek a consensus view by involving the public, regulatory and advisory bodies, academia and relevant learned societies.

5.35 But in essence the planning system is designed as a process of dispute resolution. At its heart it is almost inevitably adversarial when dealing with local issues on which there are genuine differences of opinion amongst industry, Government, local authorities, pressure groups and local residents. For the local planning process to function well, a clearly stated and broadly accepted Government policy must be in place at the outset. It is certainly not appropriate, as Professor Grant said, for a planning inquiry inspector to try to make national policy for Government or Parliament in the light of the evidence given at a local public inquiry (Grant, Q1233). That does not mean that the inspector should stifle all debate. As Professor Grant pointed out, participants at local inquiries feel cheated if they are unable to question some of the fundamental assumptions on which the proposal is premised (Q 1234).

5.36 We discuss in chapter 6 the improvements to the planning system described by the DETR (Q 58)[50] which include key points designed to improve the planning procedures for major infrastructure projects. These policies, when implemented, have the potential to achieve significant improvements. Nevertheless, the planning inquiry will remain the point of local assessment, and cannot be confined to details of policy implementation. The final decision on a site will rest with the Secretary of State based on the Inspector's report.


5.37 We discussed earlier the steps needed to build trust and establish agreement to - or acquiescence in - a national policy. To achieve local agreement more is required. Many witnesses, and in particular those representing people close to the proposed Nirex site near Sellafield, argued that compensation should have been given so as to offset the fall in land and house prices described as "nuclear blight". The Gosforth Parish Action group described the nuclear blight in their area: new industry was reluctant to set up nearby and one food firm had to close because customers elsewhere in the UK refused to buy products coming from near Sellafield (p 145). From the evidence of Copeland Council (p 93) we conclude that, while the local community there stood to gain indirect benefits from accepting a waste facility, for example in increased employment opportunities and in the provision of services to the contractors, much of the local electorate would have seen little direct benefit. There is little motive for them to support any proposal to site a repository in their locality.

5.38 Dr Loomes said that members of the public were more likely to be comfortable with risks if they were familiar with them and if they could also see direct benefit from taking them (Q 851). QuantiSci called for community financial trusts, infrastructure improvements, local and regional development preferences and local tax deductions (p 245). Sir John Knill described the benefits that could be made available to a community that agreed to host a site (Q 1031). In France the Committee was told the French Government offered the equivalent of £0.5 million per year during the investigation period to communities that volunteered to host a nuclear waste repository and that £6 million was available per annum until the year 2006 for the communities actually chosen. Other witnesses (including Nirex, p324, Sir Richard Morris, p210, and RWMAC, p254) expressed support for measures in countries such as Sweden, Hungary, France and Canada where communities are asked to volunteer as possible sites for a waste repository. Some were given some form of financial inducement.

5.39 With a transparent and open system for decisions on the location of facilities it is inevitable that blight will occur. Changes underway to the planning system will speed up the process and will minimise blight[51], but it will nonetheless occur. Government should do more to create a linkage between the costs that a local community might have to bear and benefits that it can receive from any nuclear waste management activity. These benefits might be in the form of specific measures to improve the local infrastructure, to compensate for increased road traffic or loss of other business, or it might take the form of more direct assistance in the form of community services.


5.40 Public acceptability of a national plan for the management of nuclear waste is essential, but achieving it will be difficult. The potential risks to human health and the environment are not easily expressed in ordinary terms and the benefits of managing waste are not clearly related to these risks either at national or local level. Within many groups in society there is an aversion to the uncertainty inherent in long-term risks and a lack of trust in some of the organisations involved in regulating such risks. Some groups have a single minded adherence to their own viewpoint such that they will not accept a contrary conclusion, however democratically arrived at (Greenpeace Q470). Because of these differences in attitude the establishment of broad public trust in all aspects of the process is vital.

5.41 Social science research has provided some insights into how people perceive risks. It has shown that there is no one "public perception" or public opinion, and that perceptions and opinions do change with time. But there is no simple means of changing them by, for example, providing information in different ways or through different media.

5.42 Much emphasis is placed in the evidence given to us upon openness and transparency in decision making. These are seen as essential to the task of seeking to gain public acquiescence, acceptance and, possibly, even support for a national programme on nuclear waste management: where there are concerns about risks secrecy is counterproductive. We concluded that it is necessary to be open and transparent but further mechanisms are needed to include the public, or rather the various groups within it, in decision making. Some new methods are currently being tried which do not give undue preference to minorities at the expense of the "silent majority".

5.43 The steps outlined above, based upon the recognition that the attitude of the public is vital, have been lacking in previous attempts to develop policies for the long-term management of nuclear waste in the United Kingdom. There has been an over reliance on the nuclear industry to establish or change public views, to formulate its preferred policy and to gain public acceptance of it. Past approaches, which could be characterised as "decide, announce, defend", have not worked. Local planning inquiries have become the focus of major public debate on the nation's policy for nuclear waste disposal, a role for which they are singularly ill suited. A national policy must be established with which the public is broadly content. This should be demonstrated and underpinned by parliamentary endorsement, as we will discuss in the next chapter.

5.44 With a national policy in place, there still remains the even more difficult task of ensuring that those most affected must have confidence in the integrity of the planning inquiry. They must also be reassured that they will not be the losers, in economic terms, from the selection of a local site. Supporting measures might include regional infrastructure improvements, support for local authority services, or other measures specifically to address the difficulties of individuals selling property.

42   Report of the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concept, February 1998, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Back

43   Market and Opinion Research International (MORI) 1997, Business and the Environment 1997. Attitudes and Behaviour of the General Public. August 1997. Back

44   Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 21st Report "Setting Environmental Standards" October 1998. Back

45   HSE Inspector's Report on the fuel cycle area at Dounreay, released 15 June 1998. Back

46   Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 21st Report "Setting Environmental Standards" October 1998.  Back

47   Decommissioning of oil and gas installations, February 1996. Back

48   The People's Panel; The Service First Unit, Cabinet Office. Back

49   Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 21st Report "Setting Environmental Standards" October 1998. Back

50   Modernising Planning 15 January 1998. Back

51   DETR, January 1998, Modernising Planning. Back

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