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The access of non-experts to expertise in the local decision-making process


Questions at stake

Among the issues to be considered in nuclear waste management are the more technical ones, as for instance, the performance and safety assessment, the impact assessment, the details of the technical options, etc. Long-term disposal of radioactive waste is a complex technical and also social problem embedded in a polarised political landscape. Several aspects of knowledge or expertise are decisive: the type and quality of knowledge, its origin (the sender) and the access to it. Knowledge is indeed a prerequisite to an informed judgement, which itself is the basis for a decision.

In the past years, nuclear waste management was essentially addressed as a narrow technical issue. This resulted in technocratic approaches to decision-making. The role of the experts was emphasised and the non-technical dimensions were neglected or dealt with by experts and decision-makers without being explicitly exposed and debated. As a result, expertise typically remained an exclusion zone for the democratic process.

Because technical issues in nuclear waste management were usually addressed by technical and scientific experts, as soon as the decisions were contested, the different interested parties hired experts. It resulted in open controversies among experts. Experts’ accountability and trustworthiness were questioned. The discussion turn into a dispute on who’s right, who’s wrong from a narrow scientific and technical view. Public confidence and social trust was affected. Excluded from technical discussions local players could be tempted to think of themselves as “victims”.

Expertise is often presented as exclusively fact-based. However the technical assessments and nuclear waste management concepts are in practice filled with many other than scientific dimensions such as values, ethical positions, cultural presuppositions, trade off, etc. The challenge is therefore to bring the necessary expertise into the decision framework without impeding the democratic process. It is also to make sure that the concerns and non-technical dimensions are properly taken into account in the expertise. Do non-experts have the necessary skills to take part in the discussions? Do they have to become experts for entering the expertise? Is the public a threat to expertise or a possible resource? Is it possible to bring the non-experts in the expertise? How to make explicit the non-scientific dimensions necessitating a democratic debate (as well as other types of expertise)? How can the non-experts appropriate the available knowledge? How can experts assist the democratic process while not hijacking it?

Lessons learned

The groups came up with a shared view on the goals of expertise in the governance of nuclear waste management. The primary goal of knowledge generation is the enhancement and improvement of the management of nuclear waste and the reduction of related uncertainties. In this respect a fundamental contribution of expertise is that it makes apparent what is known and what is unknown in a given context. It reveals the boundaries of knowledge which it is essential to be aware of in view of making an informed decision.

The focus on expertise is due to the fact that it often raises suspicion from the participants not directly involved in assessment studies. Hence there is strong expectation that it can be improved in such a way that it would convey trust in the decision-making process. Trust is a result of confrontation of views within a transparent clearly defined dialogue framework. It is the result not only of impact and performance assessment. It is even more the outcome of a process where trustworthiness of the persons and institutions in charge and of the procedures has been experienced through.

Pluralism of views and their integration in expertise are key elements in this perspective. Because knowledge does not just “objectively” exist but is interest-bound, expertise independent of the applicant has to be built up to reach a pluralistic perspective. Plurality increases trustworthiness since it gives guarantees that the review of the project and/or policy will be as extended as possible, and will cover the largest possible scope of uncertainties, interests and issues. Not the least, it gives local stakeholders independence and aids them in reaching empowerment.

Ways forward

Multidisciplinarity and plurality

The expertise involved in nuclear waste management shouldn’t be limited to geological studies and safety assessment. Complex topics require various and diverse approaches to problem solving. The various dimensions of the issue, be they technical, social, ethical, related to law, public health, or decision-making expertise should be unveiled. Likewise, as expertise unfolds, the various viewpoints on each issue should emerge, reflecting the concerns of the different actors. The coming forth of multi-disciplinarity and plurality of views in nuclear waste management should significantly contribute to the quality of the process by laying down and mapping all the different aspects of the issues that request attention.

Making expertise a support to local democracy

A specific role of expertise was highlighted in supporting local democracy and local actors’ involvement in nuclear waste management. Expertise is expected to help local actors in: > Analysing impact and performance assessment > Raising questions and making comments on these assessments and other relevant issues (notably non technical) > Identifying remaining questions as regards technical data, as well as social, environmental and technical issues

This of course increases their level of understanding and their ability to interact with other involved people. Furthermore, this access to knowledge enables them to gain autonomy, self-confidence and awareness, and to develop their own understanding of the relevant available knowledge. Thus they can effectively participate in framing the technical and non technical dimensions of the project, and raise relevant questions to “stretch ” implementers and public authorities.

Plurality can be achieved in two ways : through the confrontation of various experts’ views, and through the integration of local people’s “lay” expertise. First, expertise remains primarily a delegation of knowledge embodied by experts. Thus, it should involve experts originating from different organisations (public bodies and agencies, regulators, so called independent experts, implementers). In order to ensure an as broad as possible diversity of views, experts from abroad who have no link whatsoever with the local and national situations may also be called for. Secondly, the involvement of non-experts in expertise is essential to link the technical project with an existing natural and social setting. Inhabitants have a local knowledge of their land since they live more closely to a given reality in a given place, and they are able to complete the technical expertise with data which are specifically known by the community, and are relevant for the development of the project in that particular place.

Partnership : enhancing local scrutiny

The local partnership, introduced as a core element of local democracy in nuclear waste management (see section on local democracy), was found an appropriate tool to implement, enhance and control pluralism in expertise. Through this partnership, local involved people should actually be given the opportunity of discussing issues of dissent continuously and in a competent manner since they will be directly concerned with their impact. This special local organisation would be given the mandate to scrutinise the waste management decision-making process, i. e. by holding regular debates, hiring experts, and disseminating information. Specific funds would be allotted for it. Its functioning and funding should be defined by a nationally agreed framework.


  Last update - February 2005
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