Article by Jan Haverkamp, 05 March 2019
On 30 January, the German radioactive waste licensing authority BfE held a workshop in Berlin with a range of stakeholders to discuss its research strategy. NTW member Brigitte Artmann and several other German citizens from her region invited NTW vice-chair Jan Haverkamp (who works for the organisations WISE and Greenpeace) as external expert to participate. Here are some impressions and observations.
The workshop is part of a round of stakeholder input into BfE’s research strategy. The other part consisted of an on-line tool for different organisations and citizens to give input on a (German language) strategy paper and research agenda that BfE as new authority responsible for licensing of radioactive waste facilities prepared.
Different from the European radioactive waste sector’s efforts to coordinate and strategise research in radioactive waste management in the European platform IGD-TP, BfE tries to be fully inclusive in its stakeholder approach and not bind participants to certain pre-defined visions. Having said that, the political process in Germany is still severely affected by the complete failures of the attempts to establish a deep geological disposal facility for high-level waste in Gorleben, Niedersachsen, and the completely inadequate low- and mid-level underground waste deposits in Asse II and Morsleben. Because of this history, BfE still has to focus on deep geological disposal of high-level waste as the preferred technical pathway – a political choice that made many civil society organisations, including groups around Gorleben and Greenpeace, to distance themselves from the process.
One of the central questions discussed was whether a licensing authority itself should be directly involved in research at all – either by establishing its own laboratories or by financing research. Crucial is that the licensing authority’s independence needs to be assured. Active participation in or even only ownership of research activities could lead to loyalty-bias, i.e. a preference for the outcome of its own over other independent research.
NTW is of the opinion that independence and full transparency should have priority and illustrated the dilemma with the long time denial of the issue of copper-corrosion in the Swedish nuclear waste programme. Here, the regulatory agency SSM relied mainly on research from the waste programme implementer SKB, which resulted in serious concerns of corporate capture. It is clear that BfE should not be depending only on input from the for implementation responsible federal company for final disposal BGE.
In a country like France, the licensing authority ASN can rely on its own independent technical support organisation (TSO) IRSN to carry out needed research. However, Germany does not have an independent technical support organisation for its different nuclear regulatory and licensing authorities. Supporting research is often carried out by the research institutions GRS and the TÜV’s, which also work for industry and implementers and therefore do not consider themselves independent like IRSN.
BfE would be well advised to diversify its knowledge input over a wide spectrum of independent research organisations, institutions and academia, and create a financing mechanism to facilitate that. It could also consider to establish for part of its needs its own, but organisationally separate, dedicated TSO. In all cases, it should assure a high level of transparency and public scrutiny.
Concerning transparency, NTW noted that in the welcoming speech the openness to the public was defined as transparency in information provision and the increase of trust. Both indicate a focus on one-directional information flows from the authority to the public. That BfE does see the need for a broader approach became clear during the workshop, where citizens expertise was explicitly included in the areas of importance. It was acknowledged that trust never can be one of the pre-set goals, but is to be earned in fully transparent and participative processes.
The need for and inclusion of social sciences is another issue of concern. Research is still mainly seen as natural science research, whereas there needs to be also sufficient clarity about the broader social, economic, and indeed ethical and legal implications during the process of technology- and site-choice. Sufficient attention has to be given to the inclusion of citizens expertise in the development of technical answers. One of the open questions remaining is, how legally prescribed formal public participation procedures under SEAs (strategic environmental assessments) and EIAs (environmental impact assessments) will be embedded in the wider public participation and consultation processes, including issues like access to justice in the case of disagreements. NTW advised BfE to create explicit space for this kind of social, economic, philosophical and legal research.
The German government and the radioactive waste commission with cross-political representation from the German Parliament opted for deep geological disposal as preferred technology, while keeping the choice for host-rock, be it clay, salt rock or granite, fully open. This does not, however, remove the potential need for a fall-back option or Plan B in case deep geological disposal technologies will not be able to achieve a sufficient safety case. Technical problems in Sweden, Finland, France, Belgium and Switzerland do not call for optimism. Long term radioactive waste management remains an extremely complex and risk-ridden exercise. Any research strategy needs to know what to do with input, views and questions concerning potential alternatives. And also include and secure sufficient speed in developing alternatives, so that in case deep geological disposal will not deliver on its hoped-for success, the problem of radioactive waste will not be kicked three generations further down the road.
The time-line of the research strategy of BfE is based on the legally prescribed 2031 deadline for the choice of two potential sites for deep geological disposal. This is to be followed by in-depth comparative research into potential final disposal options on both sites, with a final choice for one site in 2050, and following implementation. Given the current lack of clarity of BfE’s role in research and the complexity of the issues around deep geological disposal, the deadline of 2031 is extremely tight, and all stakeholders – BfE, BGE, academia, but also civil society, will have to remain alert that this time pressure will not lead to cutting corners – not only on issues related to risk, but also in transparency and public participation.
BfE is responsible for licensing final disposal options, but also for ongoing and new temporary storage facilities of radioactive waste. Oda Becker, an independent expert representing the German Friends of the Earth member BUND during the workshop, drew attention to the fact that BfE has so far not given sufficient attention to the findings of the Court of Schleswig that found that temporary storage at the Brunsbüttel nuclear power station was not sufficiently protected against external attacks. She pointed out that there is a great need for more research around the risks and risk reduction of these temporary storage facilities that is not reflected in the current strategy.
It became clear that with the reset button being pushed on the German nuclear waste policy development, the German nuclear phase-out is an important, but only first step in a very long road towards a sufficiently acceptable solution for the legacy of nuclear power. Whether this development will receive support or face opposition will for a large degree depend on a high level of transparency.