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Local Democracy


Questions at stake

For a long period of time nuclear waste management was viewed as a mere technical issue, in the hands of national authorities and experts. The growing difficulties met in siting facilities revealed a lack of local support and resulted in strong opposition towards radioactive waste projects. These situations were equally met for storage, disposal or laboratory, for high level, intermediate or even low level waste. The local level was identified as the weak point in the decision-making process, and the main obstacle in attempts to move forward.

As a result, local involvement is often called for to try and find "acceptance" on a given project in accordance with "good standards" of democracy. One may argue why local democracy should effectively improve the decision-making process.

Behind this first question lies another one : what is the purpose of local involvement ? Does it aim at a better acceptance of ready-made technical solutions ? It can be viewed that participation of the local community, as a potential host to the facility, will enable inhabitants to bring to the project their local concerns. Does this mean that the technical project is adapted or is completed with additional technical and economic measures to meet local claims ? Or would local actors get involved in the very technical discussions of the facility ? What are the consequences of local concerns being taken into account : would this improve the project or conversely weaken safety considerations ? How to address the technical project and safety on the one hand, and local development on the other hand ? Are these discussions likely to improve the quality of the decision-making process ? How ?

The meaning of local democracy is not self-evident. The word “local communities” was regularly used to identify the local representatives, but what does it stand for : is this the local government with its elected representatives, or more widely the active organisations and individuals, i.e. NGOs, trade unions, local industry ? What about the citizens, and the so-called silent majority ? A major concern raised when it comes to defining local democracy in practice was to specify the respective role of elected representatives and non-elected participants (NGOs, trade-unions, industry).

Lessons learned

The development of local democracy is seen as a necessary step for improving the governance of nuclear waste management. This includes the empowerment of local people and an active participation of the wider population. Local involvement was discussed as a means for the local government, local organisations and citizens to improve their understanding of the nuclear waste issue and its implications for the local community. Their participation is equally requested to raise awareness among representatives of national authorities, and implementers about local concerns and projects. The purpose of local democracy is however not just to explain technical issues to the local community, and to listen to its interests. It should aim at bridging the two dimensions and at making the local community a genuine partner in dialogue. Local involved people are concerned with safety which remains the primary consideration in a siting process, but they are eager for a discussion on a wider scope of issues, covering among others the socio-economic impact, the criteria in the decision-making process, their relation to the national level¸ the long term perspective of the facility operation... Moreover it appears that the appraisal of technical questions makes more sense to local actors when they have the opportunity to relate them with their daily environment.

The presentation of several case studies from various European countries illustrated that local democracy takes different forms according to each country’s laws, national and local government culture. The development of local democracy in nuclear waste management will necessarily take different forms across Europe. It is acknowledged that there is no one best solution to make local involvement effective. Indeed, imposition of uniformity could on the contrary harm the existing and ongoing process to such an extent that solutions become impossible and unattainable. Nevertheless COWAM views as a primary task the identification of principles and/or best practices for the involvement of local population which can guide decision-making processes regarding nuclear waste management, in all countries concerned. These are developed below.

Ways forward

Increasing clarity and transparency

To make sure local democracy is given due consideration as the process unfolds, there is a strong request that clear rules of the game are specified and followed. It must be clear from the start who takes the decision and on what basis.

A transparent and defined democratic process is required at national level, as a framework for local democracy. This question was emphasized and addressed as a topic of its own (see section E.5). The process should give local actors guarantees that :

> their comments and questions will be listened to

> the project is likely to be modified and influenced by them

> the decision will be eventually explained and justified

Local democracy in practice

It is the democratic duty of elected representatives to take a stand on difficult issues. The ‘normal’ locally elected representative body (a municipal council or a corresponding body) should always have a decisive role. If possible, a local community should be able to work out its own decision-making process, and for instance to make use of local referenda if this is considered a useful tool in the decision-making process (on this particular issue see section on the influence of local actors on the national decision-making process). In the meantime, there should be opportunity for all to take part and interest should be the only criterion for involvement. The process is not there to collect opinions but to allow people to discuss and establish their interest. Plurality of views, including opposition, should be regarded as an asset. Local representatives should take responsibility in enhancing local dialogue, keeping in view also the silent majority. Given the complexity of nuclear waste management issues, before making any decision the elected representatives need to value the contribution concerned individuals and organisations can provide.

Local partnership : enhancing local dialogue

Local involvement in nuclear waste management issues should be based on usual democratic rules and structures that are used for decisions on other issues of major importance for a local community. Nevertheless new tools may be required to inform and improve traditional local democratic processes. The uniqueness of nuclear waste management facilities comes from their duration and technical complexity which require new approaches to local development and monitoring (see section on sustainable development). Long before the decision is made, local democracy should be developed through the creation of a local partnership embodied by a local organisation involving the various categories of the community representatives and other local concerned actors. The role of this partnership consists in :

> Gathering information from various viewpoints

> Training its members

> Informing the public about the arguments and propositions

> Leading and structuring dialogue at the local level

> Interacting with the available sources of expertise (see section on expertise)

> Striving to involve the silent majority

> Dialoguing with and informing the regional and national levels

> Formulating the local requirements on the project

The composition of the partnership should reflect the diversity and plurality of the local community. The implementer and the regulator should participate in providing information and answering questions.

Local partnership should take place at an early stage of the site selection process. Moreover, if siting is agreed, the partnership should remain active for purpose of information and local monitoring throughout the operation of the facility and possibly after site closure on the medium and long term.

Funding : giving matching resources to the local development plan

Local democracy on nuclear waste management requires dedicated resources in order to :

> Inform and involve inhabitants through local participatory processes (with structured dialogue methodologies and mediation) and communication

> Provide capacity building and training for local involved people (a competence of its own that gives the local community the tools for meaningful participation)

> Give opportunities for additional expertise and means of local monitoring (see section E.2)

> Dialogue with national, regional and local levels

These resources must be provided according to clear funding rules. A national framework is valuable to specify the origin as well as the use of the devoted funds. Neutrality of funding should be guaranteed. In accordance with the polluter-pay principle, resources should be drawn from the operators, while a clearing mechanism would ensure transparency, and autonomy of the funded communities.


  Last update - February 2005
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