In its recently published book, Resolving Energy and Land Conflicts, CBI tackled one of the toughest and perhaps most intractable land use and energy dilemmas: where should we put the nuclear waste that is building up through decades of generation from our fleet of nuclear power plants? Can our collaboration toolbox unlock an issue that has been so contentious and polarizing for 50 years that we still do not have a permanent and safe place to deposit 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste? A settlement agreement in California may be the first chance to put that question to the test.
Southern California Edison Company (SCE) co-owns three closed nuclear reactors in San Clemente, California, called the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), located 100 feet from the Pacific Ocean in a region vulnerable to earthquakes and sea level rise. SCE plans to dismantle the units and decontaminate the area, with the hope of restoring the land for other future uses and mitigating existing risks. However, there is a major obstacle to reclaiming the land after decommissioning: the lack of a licensed permanent repository for nuclear waste in the U.S.
A 2017 settlement agreement between and Citizens Oversight, Inc. requires SCE to try to relocate fuel from SONGS to an inland location. Watching how this unfolds will offer us important lessons in how to find a temporary or permanent place to store nuclear waste. SCE has publicly committed to developing the relocation plan in an “inclusive” manner, and promoting “fair,” “balanced,” and “meaningful” representation of relevant stakeholders. This sounds very much like the consent-based siting process promoted by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. As we know, however, translating principles and good intentions into reality can be a monumental challenge, particularly when communities are being asked to accept nuclear waste that they may have to live with for decades or centuries.
History of past efforts to find a permanent disposal site for the nation’s nuclear waste can predict some of the challenges SCE will face. First, as with other energy facilities, siting can become difficult when state and local governments perceive a significant mismatch between the benefits and risks they would bear for hosting nuclear waste disposal sites.
Second, disposal of nuclear waste is a highly complex task, affecting not only those near the disposal facility, but also landowners, communities, and businesses along rail lines and highways that carry waste from the generating source to the storage facility. And arguably more so than other energy-related facilities, the disposal of nuclear waste will have consequences that will impact many future generations.
Finally, the federal government’s history of repeatedly missing timelines and commitments, as well as a perceived lack of fairness and transparency in the decision-making process, has undermined confidence in the agencies tasked with designing and implementing siting processes
We have learned from past experience that this is a problem that requires the long view. I’d offer some well-learned lessons from CBI’s experience in mediating energy facility siting conflicts to suggest that a collaborative approach could open doors that sometimes seem shut.
Our experience suggests that success requires willing consent and collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders. Not unanimous consent, but consent from the majority of affected stakeholders and decisionmakers. That means collaboration from the beginning with the right set of people, with credible, scientific information, and the right process to build trust and cooperation. Some advice to SCE as it embarks on this journey:
First, the circle of consent needs to include not just the host community or tribe, but also nearby communities whose interests don’t stop at political boundaries. In Resolving and Energy and Land Conflicts, we suggest that stakeholders need to be part of the process of determining what consent means and answer questions like: Do our elected officials speak on our behalf? Do we need a state-wide referendum? Should the executive branch be given authority to make the decision? Under what circumstances should the state have the right to overturn the demonstrated consent of the local communities or tribes? How do we know when and if consent is reached? What we often find in cases of public decision making is that a small but vocal minority of citizens can drive a “no” agenda even if a sizeable majority of citizens find a decision acceptable. Giving voice to a diverse range of stakeholders can counter such efforts.
Consent also needs to consider what it means for today’s citizens to make decisions when the impacts of these decisions will be borne by future generations. One size of consent will not fit all. But the basic ingredients should be the same – science-driven, transparent, legally binding, and based on willing agreement of all the parties.
Fairness, of course, is a critical criterion of all negotiated agreements. In the pursuit of fairness, whoever agrees to store the nation’s nuclear waste deserves compensation for bearing the long-term risks and costs of our country’s investment in nuclear power. The conversation about fairness must come early in the process and evolve as stakeholders learn more about the situation. Jointly agreeing to the facts and the uncertainties will be key to building trust among the consenting partners. As stakeholders start to understand the risks involved, they will be in a better position to negotiate what they consider to be appropriate allocation of costs and benefits.
Potential consenting parties also need sufficient resources to independently assess the risks, including those associated with transporting the waste from the reactor site to the interim storage or permanent disposal site. Whether these resources come from the private utility, funds collected from nuclear facilities by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or the federal budget, the need for meaningful, substantial, and independent technical assistance should be met. Ideally, these technical, science-based explorations are done jointly and transparently.
Given the past history of missed deadlines and broken promises by the federal government, many will be wary of timelines spelled out in agreements. To address the legitimate concern that interim storage could become an open door to indefinite storage, any agreement must include not only deadlines for moving the waste to permanent disposal sites, but also serious penalties or powerful incentives that can finance safeguards or provide additional socio-economic benefits for the community if delays occur. Legal remedies should be built in up front and not left to litigation after the fact.
As the Blue Ribbon Commission urged, any consent-based process has to be adaptive – to changing technologies, costs, and politics. Agreements today need to anticipate and trigger new negotiations as significant new information or technologies emerge. And, they have to be adaptive to the evolving stakeholder perceptions about the risks and benefits of the agreement. As the balance of risks and benefits shifts, so too should the opportunity to renegotiate the compensation, plan to monitor risks, and long-term stewardship of the site.
A year ago, SCE convened a panel of experts and hired technical consultants to evaluate interim storage options. No information has been shared publicly about what progress has been made. But SCE has been vocal in its commitment to consent-based siting, so we look forward to hearing how working collaboratively with stakeholders has informed options and how stakeholders will be involved in the next stage of planning. Key learnings from this example could shift progress on what has been an intractable issue for decades – our long-term storage of nuclear waste.
Photo credit: Aerial view of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station by Jelson 25 (CC BY-SA 3.0)