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The Belgian local partnerships (Mona, Stola, PaLoFF)


This case study was introduced by Mr Bernard Neerdael (SCK.CEN) and presented by Mrs Evelyn Hooft (ONDRAF/NIRAS), Mrs Anne Bergmans (University of Antwerp), Mrs Kathleen Derveaux (Stola-Dessel), Mrs Liesbet Vanhoof (Mona) and Mr Marc Mormont(FUL).

In 1990 ONDRAF/NIRAS, the public agency responsible for nuclear waste management in Belgium, issued a report concluding in favour of surface disposal for the long term management of low level waste after examination of three options. In 1994 98 potentially suitable zones were identified on the base of technical criteria. All concerned municipalities wrote motions to reject the proposal. In 1995 the Government made a national policy statement and prompted ONDRAF/NIRAS to study alternatives to surface disposal. Following a 1997 report from the Agency, the Government opted for a disposal that would be reversible, progressive and flexible. The technical decision between deep and surface disposal was not yet made but the disposal option was chosen with regard to long term storage. It was agreed that the selection process would focus on existing nuclear sites or on candidate sites, and develop in close cooperation with the local people to integrate the disposal in the socio-economic structure. ONDRAF/NIRAS worked out a new methodology with the Universities of Antwerp and Arlon to meet this latter request. The Agency contacted the existing nuclear sites and presented the methodology. The nuclear power plants sites (Doel, Tihange) declined the proposal, but three partnerships were established in Dessel (September 1999), Mol (February 2000) and more recently Fleurus-Farciennes (February 2003). The three communities already host nuclear research laboratories, waste management facilities, or isotope production units.

The methodology is aiming at a better integration of technical and social aspects to find a safe solution. It relies on a continuous interaction with the public through a partnership. Before the partnerships were formally set up, a consultation process was carried out by a team from the Universities : the various actors in each community were met to get feedback on the proposed methodology, and to reach a common definition of the problem at the local level. This process equally ended up with a specific structure for the partnership as regards management, and composition.

The structure and operation of the partnerships in Dessel (Stola - “Study and Consultation Group Low Level Waste”) and in Mol (Mona - “Consultation on Nuclear Waste Category A”) is quite similar. The partners work out a disposal project on the one hand, a social project on the other hand. These two projects will be evaluated separately. If one of the two is considered unfeasible the whole project will end. If both of them are considered feasible they will be integrated in a global project. This integrated project will be submitted first to the general assembly of the partnership, then to the municipal council, and eventually to the Federal government. At any of these steps, if the project is disapproved the project will be stopped. These clear rules were viewed essential to provide clarity on the implications of each step and on the overall direction of the process. What remains unclear at this stage is the possible position of the Federal Government if the project is approved locally.

The partnerships are independent decision-making bodies. Their independence stems from the diverse background of their members. Both organisations dispose of a 250000 € yearly budget, which they use according to their convenience. The partnerships consist of a general assembly (30 members) with a broad representation of the local community (political actors, delegates from socio-economic, environmental, cultural and other locally based organisations) and a representative of ONDRAF/NIRAS; a management committee (10 members), appointed by the general assembly; two full-time project coordinators; and four working groups (15 members each) : “siting and design”, “environment and health”, “safety”, “local development”. Each working group comprises representatives of the political, economical and social organisations that founded the partnership and individual citizens who took an interest in the debate. All participate on a voluntary basis. The technical project is worked out by the first three working groups. They build on the reference repository concept of ONDRAF/NIRAS as a starting point. The technical project is then progressively specified according to the request of the partnership members and the local setting. The social project is prepared by the “local development” working group which develops social conditions for the integration of the technical project in the community. In the four working groups, all relevant research is given consideration. Interested parties are invited to express their interests and concerns through dialogue. The need for additional studies is evaluated. Independent experts are introduced in the debate. There is a positive attendance in the working groups, but the wider public has a limited knowledge on Mona and Stola. In this respect, the partnerships have made significant communication efforts to make the broader population aware of their activities. The decision by the municipalities will be made in 2004.

The Fleurus and Farciennes municipalities first refused to establish a partnership in 1999, and requested proofs of technical feasibility to ONDRAF/NIRAS. They however accepted the setting up of an information forum to convey information to the people. This forum was led by a University team with ONDRAF engineers. PaLoFF partnership (Partenariat Local Fleurus-Farciennes) is a result of this three year open forum. Specific factors have contributed to this new development. In the forum ONDRAF/NIRAS experts were open in sharing uncertainties and doubts which made it possible to integrate in the concept definition all questions, doubts and concerns also expressed by the local population. Moreover the population had valuable information about past mining activities, soil and water courses which were relevant as regards the technical conditions for the project. Little by little interests converged, technical concepts and local concerns integrated in a shared understanding of the problem. A new concept emerged : the facility would be a more open structure which can be accessed, controlled and monitored. This concept could address the initially opposed visions of safety : one based on technical uncertainties, the other on uncertainties stemming from a potential interaction between the waste and the social environment. In a new framework technical uncertainties would be acceptable if social uncertainties can be dealt with. The creation of the partnership was also dependent on the capacity of the forum to encourage the expression of a diversity of interests and views in the discussion over the project, while fostering social cohesion and mitigating internal divisions.

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