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The quality of the site selection process


Questions at stake

As pointed out in section E.2, many siting approaches in the past appear to have failed either because they were based on technical criteria alone and didn’t consider economic, social and political aspects, or because they dealt with these economic, social and political aspects but without sufficient transparency.

In some experiences, site selection was considered as part of a technical process. Every site was analysed according to the same geological criteria : the selection was viewed as equitable by the implementer and the selection result was only disclosed at the very end. However, this technical approach proved to be a failure: even if the selected site met safety requirements, it was rejected in most cases once made public because it had seldom or never been discussed with the local population. Moreover, the lack of public participation raised suspicion that the technical criteria, often not disclosed, were an umbrella for political motives in the selection process.

More pragmatically, some other experiences have at first looked for volunteer sites. Some communities already hosting nuclear activities have been involved in this perspective. In this case the chance of success looked higher, but a strong concern was expressed by local actors and NGOs that safety could be balanced with so-called "acceptance".

What are the legitimate principles that should guide the decision-making process, and more specifically the site selection ? Is it possible to strike a balance between safety and acceptance ? Is it possible to unveil and discuss the non-technical criteria that lie behind the word “acceptance” ?

Another concern which deserves clarification is the articulation of the different steps of the decision-making process. For instance, a frequent concern is the generally held suspicion that a site originally selected for low level waste disposal may mutatis mutandis become the site for intermediate level or high level waste also, or a rock laboratory turn into a storage or disposal. What does the process aim at ? Can there be a global objective in a process that runs step by step ? Which kind of guarantees can be given to local people that when they step into a decision-making process for a specific project, they don’t eventually get committed for broader or different projects? A reliable selection process should involve two or more sites in the first stages. This creates a situation of competition between communities which could be positive but could also damage the quality of the whole process. What are the possibilities that “rival” communities cooperate to better contribute the selection process ?

Lessons learned

A site selection process based on a pure technical approach is felt inappropriate to take into account local concerns of potential sites. On the other hand the discussion of non-technical selection criteria should clearly not compromise basic requests of safety. The experiences presented in the seminars have shown that though geology remains a main selection criterion, economic and political factors need to be considered. The view is made that economic and political considerations are unavoidable and important factors in the decision and they shouldn’t remain "hidden motives".

The site selection process is questioned because of a lack of transparency, but also because some problems were not addressed or solved in the early phases of the decision-making process. The difficulties met in site selection point at the interaction between this phase and the earlier preparation of the national policy framework on the one hand, and the subsequent steps which are expected to take place after site selection on the other hand.

As a general lesson, it was also pointed out that a main component to strengthen the quality of the process is that there is sufficient time to progress. The complexity and the political sensitiveness of the issue make it very necessary not to speed the decisions, and to allow time for local and national actors to dialogue and grasp the technical questions, as well as the economic, political and social interests at stake.

Ways forward

Criteria, methods and rules in the site selection process : ensuring transparency and accountability

Site selection may be based neither on purely technical criteria nor “volunteers” alone. Long term safety is indeed paramount, but - as stressed in the previous section on expertise - ethics and social considerations are also to be discussed during the selection. Transparent criteria should be made public to explain how these “non-technical” considerations are brought into and weighed in the decision. A first step to address them in a transparent way would be to openly discuss their relevance and weight in the process. A preliminary discussion on site selection criteria - both at national and local level - should make clear how economic and political factors are included in the decision beside safety.

The definition of methods and rules are also a strong request to improve the understanding, clarity and trustworthiness of the site selection process. These will depend on the national context (legal framework and political structure) and the type of decisions to be made. Nevertheless, whatever the situation, the definition of methods and rules should make clear how the following principles are put into practice :

> transparency, accountability, traceability of arguments

> iterativity and consistency

> early involvement of local and national stakeholders

It is viewed that it may be more comfortable for local communities that have a veto right to participate effectively in a site selection process. This would significantly ease the site selection process because it will ensure that local communities are considered as a genuine partner in the dialogue and their concerns are effectively addressed and answered.

Step-wise approach : checking progress in an open process

The definition of rules and siting criteria are essential, but it might however be that these elements are insufficient to bring trustworthiness and robustness to the decisions. They would preferably be included in a dynamic and global process, which first starts with a national strategy announcing a project for waste management at the national level, and which is then implemented and reviewed through a step-wise approach, providing for regular updates and decision alternatives at key stages.

The continued relevance of the process standards depends on their being checked against the evolving local and national situations. The decision-making process should be structured in a series of stages to make transparent its rationale and the articulation of steps. Criteria for go/no-go decisions in the site selection process should be specified in advance for each step. As the implementation progresses and criteria are confronted with the actual conditions of selection, and not the least with the technical information emerging from studies and site investigations, they should be discussed and reviewed at national and local levels. If they can be modified or specified, their review and change have to be substantiated and carried out consensually. Each step has to be made visual and backed up as interim decisions on the ground of the knowledge available at the time. At each stage, time must be allowed to enable local communities to be comfortable in taking the next step. In this respect it is also essential that different alternative options remain available at the outcome of each step. If not, the process is likely to come to a dead end as soon as the single available option fails.

Each stage should also define the role and responsibilities of the concerned actors notably:

> the role of local communities and their interaction with other parties

> the role of other actors (namely : the implementer and the regulator)

> the use and purpose of a veto right for the local community


  Last update - February 2005
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