Picture of University of Sheffield seminars

ESRC Nuclear Futures Seminar Series

Geological disposal (GD) of radioactive waste, in deep underground repositories, was first proposed in the US in the 1950s, yet rarely has final disposal of waste been at the forefront of government and industry concerns. Much waste has been in 'interim storage' for decades. Meanwhile, more is produced through ongoing energy production. The GD approach to civil waste has crept up national policy agendas following an EU Directive in 2011 and the EU's Technology Platform determination that first disposal operations should begin somewhere in Europe by 2025. At various speeds, EU Member States are conducting further scientific research, progressing decisions on where to site GD and undertaking various forms of public engagement. Many countries have made limited headway or have deferred implementation decisions, while Finland has made 'most' progress against the Directive targets and now holds permission to start construction of disposal facilities. The publication of the UK Government White Paper 'Implementing Geological Disposal' in July 2014 (IGD2014) sets out a process to decide on the siting and building of a UK facility. Learning from earlier policy breakdowns the new policy promises to "provide a permanent solution" for the UK's existing and planned higher activity radioactive waste.

The implementation of geological disposal - like many topics on nuclear matters - prompts numerous questions of social, technical, political and ethical character. Experts at the University of Sheffield have won funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a series of seven seminars over two years, looking at the societal issues of storing radioactive waste. Funding is also being provided by Radioactive Waste Management (RWM), which is the organisation responsible for implementing geological disposal in the UK. The seminars will bring together different parts of the research and technical communities.

The Nuclear Futures Seminar Series' primary focus is on nuclear waste, its management and proposed final disposal. However, radioactive waste is interwoven with multiple other concerns including: government policy on building new nuclear plants as part of an energy mix and a low carbon future; and ongoing and future decommissioning projects. For some, these discussions cannot be separated from military affairs, further entangling issues up for debate. Social science academics have written on nuclear topics in the past and under different policy conditions. However, it is timely to question these earlier works and to enlarge the arena of debate, expanding the social perspectives and including the technical. The goal is to transform thinking to address radioactive waste as a sociotechnical matter and to vitalise our research capacity.

Bringing social scientists from different disciplines together, alongside academic engineering communities, policy and industry bodies, the Series will build on an ESRC initiative in multi-disciplinary research training funded in 2013. That scheme enabled an experimental collaboration between social scientists associated with the White Rose DTC and engineers from the EPSRC-funded Nuclear First CDT. We now seek to expand this research potential beyond training provision and expand to include policy implementation concerns. Each meeting will involve talks from academic and non-academic partners, small group discussions, plenary sessions and activities. The seminars will provide opportunities for social science academics to connect directly to technical research communities and to non-academic bodies involved in GD policy. Policy bodies and engineering researchers will experience the process of social science debate and be exposed to critical thinking on their technical concerns. The meetings will thus enable knowledge exchange between groups that do not regularly interact, including social science researchers with technical policy implementation bodies. Meetings will be concurrent with specific aspects of the IGD2014 policy process: the possibility to inform ongoing implementation work makes the Series particularly timely.

The seminars

1. Looking back, looking forward: understanding the socio-technical dimensions of nuclear

What can we learn from the history of prior research on waste concerns? In what ways is the current context of discussions and policy the same/different to prior situations and policy processes? Have actors changed? Have the terms of debate shifted? The nuclear industry faces a demographic challenge with their skilled workforce; is the same the case for interested social researchers? Are the experts of the past in a position to pass on wisdom and ideas to be re-mobilised or are new concepts and thinking required?

2. Sociotechnical dimensions of the geological

Initial policy action includes a geological screening process. Some assessments of geology have been conducted in the past, so why the need for further geological work? How will new work will create knowledge that prior processes did not (are new questions being answered and/or created?). How will screening inform publics and in what ways might the geological be understood? How can the interactions between geology and other considerations (e.g. disposal policy frameworks; engineering worldviews) work together?

3. Publics and the practices of participation

Where do we draw lines around the boundary of a ‘host community’ and who counts as a stakeholder? How might communities develop a sense of ownership of a large technological project such as a GDF? How can ‘future voices’ be included and what are the issues in environmental justice terms? There are new forms of participation and of facilitating engagement with techno-scientific work. Might these work for the waste case?

4. Making waste knowledge: building trust

The social construction of technical knowledge provides ways to re- conceptualise uncertainty from both technical and social points of view. All data, experiments, results, generalisations and decisions have uncertainties associated with them. By opening up a discussion on the various approaches that can be adopted in relation to these, the seminar aims to create greater mutual understandings between technical and social frames and generate ideas for moving forward constructively.

5. Disposal cultures

What are EU and international perspectives on approaches to waste disposal, from both technical and social perspectives? In what ways, if any, can experiences in voluntarism and in technical research agendas in other nations inform the UK process? How might UK policy work inform other, yet to begin, disposal processes in other states? What discourses and practices are available?

6. Planning & siting infrastructure

How can we make sense of engagement with large technical systems whose purpose and function is at a different scale to our everyday knowledge and interactions? How can we understand individual and community-based encounters with national infrastructure projects? What are the implications of various levels of decision making in the progression of a GD? Furthermore, what do technical communities need to understand of the planning and assessment process to make sense of their own work?

7. Nuclear imaginations and entanglements

How does popular culture continue to reflect and refract public imaginations of nuclear worlds? Is it possible, or desirable, to disentangle the civil and non-civil aspects of nuclear worlds when discussing and planning waste concerns? How might imaginations and entanglements impact on the ongoing GD policy process and shape future community engagements?

Participation

The Series will bring together participants from academia (social sciences and engineering), governmental bodies and industry. Academic participants – at all levels - will come from the UK, elsewhere in Europe and the USA via Skype.

Impact

The overall goal is to provide a forum in which social science, engineering, policy and industry participants can learn, discuss, appreciate and act on, key thinking around the disposal of UK higher level radioactive waste. Social science has much to offer debates around these wastes yet they can often be detached from the technical and policy communities conducting and implementing research in the area, or are focused solely on handling public perception issues. The tradition of research - centred on science and technology studies - which aims to re-frame technical problems as socio-technical matters is largely absent so far. A major impact will therefore be the building of capacity in the social scientific study of nuclear waste, to define new concepts to inform policy implementation and to reframe problem definitions in technical communities.

Output will include academic talks and papers; policy briefings; reports and designs for engagement activities.

The team

Dr Susan Molyneux-Hodgson, University of Sheffield - Principal Investigator
Peter Simmons, University of East Anglia - Co-Investigator
Philip Johnstone, University of Sussex - Co-Investigator