‘Participation’: Keyword for Public Debate on Spent Nuclear Fuel Management Option
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‘Participation’: Keyword for Public Debate on Spent Nuclear Fuel Management Option
By Kang Seong-cheon, director general in charge of nuclear industry policy at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy

30(Tue), Apr, 2013

By Kang Seong-cheon, director general in charge of nuclear
industry policy at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy

The government plans to establish a committee for the public debate on spent nuclear fuel, a civilian advisory body of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE), charged with enhancing the transparency and democracy of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) management policy. The purpose of the committee is to explore management options for spent nuclear fuel, which will full fill the storage capacity around 2016. The misgivings of local governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on extended storage of SNF at the temporary storage facility can no longer be ignored. 

Spent fuel is highly radioactive material that has been burned in a nuclear reactor to generate electricity, and it contains many nuclear fission products, and emits heat and radiation for a long term. Due to these reasons, the safety is the first priority when the management option is chosen.

Saturation of the temporary storage capacity poses a challenge to not only in Korea but also in 30 countries operating nuclear power plants. Most of nuclear power countries have a step-by-step approach of storing SNF at temporary facility, interim facility, and eventually permanent facility in order. For establishing the SNF management policy, in case of other countries, local governments and parliaments lead the optimization of legal and institutional systems while local residents and other stakeholders try to build a social consensus to prevent conflicts.  

The ultimate goal of the government is to build a public consensus toward spent fuel management solution. The government recognizes that the best policy allows all direct and indirect stakeholders to participate in and then reaches a social consensus on how to solve the issue now that it has learned the painful lessons from its unilateral site selection process for low- and intermediate-level radwaste repository that resulted in huge social conflicts and high costs.

The nation cannot delay any further the public debate on how to manage spent fuel due to the stark reality of current spent fuel storage facilities. Spent fuel amounts being kept in at-reactor storage facilities top 12,000 tons, filling up more than 70 percent of the combined capacity, and they are expected to enter the stage of saturation in 2016. Technological ways to further cram the storage facilities and the relocation of spent fuel between nuclear power units could apparently further put off the saturation point to 2024, but as local residents’ worries and an issue of social acceptance emerge, it is urgent to get into the public discussions of how to cope with the saturation of current storage sites for spent fuel.

The government strives to ensure the balance, transparency, and representation of the composition of the proposed committee on the public debate of spent fuel so that it can contribute to managing conflicts. Manning it with only members sharing government views could cause misunderstandings and undermine the integrity of the public debate, so local residents of nuclear power plants, antinuclear NGOs, and other representatives from science, humanities, and diverse of sectors of society will be allowed to participate in the committee. Composition and selection of the committee will reflect views of civic organizations, local governments, and other stakeholders, and all processes will be made in public. 

Independence and autonomy of the committee will be guaranteed at a maximum. The committee is a process for collecting people’s wisdom on how to ensure the safe management of spent fuel, not for selecting a site. The government does not have any direction on the issue, so how final disposal and interim storage is done, methods, processes, such options as supporting host communities, topic agendas, and the discussion process will all be left to the committee. 

As a result, the success of the public debate will depend on people’s participation. This is the reason the balance, transparency, and representation of the committee is decided by citizens’ participation. Despite the government’s efforts to guarantee the presentation of each segment, key stakeholders’ refusal to engage in the process could undermine the integrity of the public debate since the committee cannot reflect stakeholders’ interests and views fully for the purpose of managing conflicts and contributing to building a social consensus. 

If each stakeholder will be a responsible member of society, albeit with divergent interests, it is desirable to try to find the greatest common denominator through participation. The mission of finding solutions to ensure the safe management of spent fuel cannot be handed over to the next generation as a burdensome thing. More weight should be given to active participation in the public debate to ensure the democracy and transparency of state policies. 

Public concern and demand has been mounting on the safe management of spent fuel in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident. The forthcoming public debate on spent fuel is hoped to serve as an opportunity for people to share in-depth information on the necessity of the safe management of spent fuel, its hazards, and the current status of spent fuel management in foreign countries, and to discuss these topics in a sincere fashion and suggest solutions. 

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