Proposal for nuclear disposal

Two Swedish municipalities competed to be chosen as a site for the country’s first depository of high level nuclear waste


Does the English concept of Nimbyism translate to other countries? NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – a rather snide term applied to protestors of unwelcome planning applications, often of an environmental necessity: in other words, I don’t care what you do with the problem; I just don’t want to have to deal with it. I ask because it’s a concept clearly foreign to the good people of Östhammar, a municipality near Stockholm, who have won the privilege of being selected for the final destination for high level nuclear waste. This kind of nuclear waste mainly consists of spent uranium, which can take up to 30 or 40 years to become safe for handling once out of a reactor. Nuclear power, and in particular this kind of mind-bogglingly hazardous level of nuclear waste, is a contentious issue, and surely not something that anyone in their right mind would welcome on their doorstep. Which makes the work of SKB, a Swedish nuclear fuel and waste management company, all the more impressive. Founded by nuclear companies in the 1970s, SKB began its programme of preliminary site investigations of potential sites in the 1980s in the northernmost part of Sweden. However, local protests persuaded SKB to desist from these investigations. Carl Sommerholt, communications manager at SKB, credits this climb-down with a turnaround in his company’s approach to communications.

Winning acceptance

“SKB learned a very good lesson on the significance of acceptance on the work and the way the work is done,” he says. “That has, over time, transformed into a particular SKB organisational culture in the way we do whatever we do – from research to site investigations to how we meet people, how we communicate with people. These early protests were a learning curve for SKB.”

 The main lesson learnt was the importance of winning acceptance among the inhabitants of the potential sites, and to do this, the public face of SKB’s operations in this field moved from engineers and technologists to a range of internal people chosen from the local communities to be the conduits of open dialogue. These were the public information officers, and their familiarity with the local community was, explains Sommerholt, essential:

“We couldn’t have people coming in from HQ in Stockholm. We needed to recruit people locally that are a part of the local community. We wanted to maintain a dialogue with the most concerned people locally from day one of site investigations. The significant fact was that these are people who live in the municipalities themselves and understand what the concerns and local questions were about from the start.” The officers participated in open meetings with citizens and interested organisations in eight shortlisted areas, and accepted invitations to talk about the activities around site investigations. For example, an inspection of the biosphere around a particular site would be announced in advance, in a way off offsetting any charges of clandestine obfuscation.

This approach was devised in-house, due to the lack of comparable long term relationship building. There was continuous feedback on the work of the public information officers to company management, and opinion polls conducted annually by market research company Synovate. But crucially, the officers were entrusted with a high degree of delegation and authority to carry out their role in a way that best fitted the needs of the local municipalities. When asked how he would compare this later approach with that of the late 80s and early 90s, Sommerholt points to the art of listening as the defining change: “Sometime it’s more important to listen than talk about our activities so we can determine what really concerns people, and focus on those questions; not focus on the technical or other issues that we may think is what really concerns people. So it’s both an attitude and approach, a total mind shift if you compare the early 1990s with the 2000s when it comes to a way of working.”


Summertime open days 

The final phase of preliminary site investigations began in 2002, with the choice of locations narrowed down to two sites in Östhammar and Oskarshamn. Both locations were determined to fit the fundamental requirements for long term safety, but such a contentious issue presented its own set of challenges. The varying degrees of risk perception demanded a consistent willingness to listen to people’s concerns and answer them, and not always aim to dispel fears or convince the doubters. One of the most striking examples of this open approach was the series of summertime open days and exhibitions held in the cargo hold of a ship actually used to transport spent nuclear fuel. Visitors were able to speak directly with experts from SKB over a coffee in this highly unusual setting.

And SKB’s efforts paid off. A poll conducted by Synovate before the final announcement on June 3 this year showed increased acceptance in both municipalities. Seventy-nine  per cent of respondents from Östhammar reported that they were ‘for’ or ‘totally for’ the project, a two per cent increase from a similar poll a year earlier, while Oskarshamn saw a one per cent increase, up to 84 per cent.


Communications work far from over

Ultimately, it was Östhammar that received the dubious honour of selection to host the world’s first high level nuclear waste site. With a projected start date of 2023, all spent nuclear fuel from Swedish nuclear power plants will be disposed of in a final repository at a depth of nearly 500 metres in the crystalline bedrock, in approximately 50 kilometres of deposition tunnels. The announcement was made at a press conference held on the waste ship docked in Stockholm. The two mayors involved had agreed earlier this year to share the SKr2bn (179m Euros) of “added investment” that had been promised to the winner: 75 per cent of it to the runner-up – some consolation prize. SKB will submit a licence application next year to the government, who will have the final veto. In a statement after the conference, Mayor Jakob Spangenberg acknowledged that there are people in Östhammar who are sceptical to a final repository in their area: “We have an important task to supervise and inspect ongoing work, and see to it that citizens and elected representatives in the municipality receive sufficient information and remain committed to the matter.” Sommerholt, meanwhile, believes SKB’s communications work is far from over:  “We have employees in both municipalities,” he explains. “Of course, over the years to come we are going to increase our presence and activism, gearing up for the project that we’ll perform in Östhammar, so SKB has long term commitment to both municipalities and will have for a very long time to come.”

And with nuclear waste, a long time to come is a very, very long time indeed.