August 30, 2004

Citizens' views clear on values guiding nuclear fuel waste handling decisions

Canadian citizens are eager to play a role in deciding what to do with the country's used nuclear fuel, and have a very clear idea about the key values that should guide future decisions. They are concerned about public safety and they want to act now to protect this and future generations.

These are among the results of a nation-wide dialogue about the future management of Canada's used nuclear fuel, conducted earlier this year by Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO). The two organizations presented their findings last week in an analytical report titled Responsible Action - Citizens' Dialogue on the Long-Term Management of Used Nuclear Fuel. The report was written by CPRN president Judith Maxwell, along with associates Judy Watling, Nandini Saxena and Suzanne Taschereau.

CPRN organized the dialogues on behalf of the NWMO. The meetings were held in both official languages with a representative sample of 462 Canadians in 12 cities across the country, to discuss what principles should guide decisions about managing used nuclear fuel over the long term.

Canada's 22 commercial nuclear reactors produce 13 % of the nation's electricity. They are expected to produce 3.6 million used fuel bundles over their anticipated lifetimes. These hazardous radioactive wastes, with half-life measured in centuries, are now stored securely in licensed facilities at the nuclear generating stations. Canada, like other nuclear countries, is seeking an acceptable method of storing it for the long term.

Following passage of the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act in 2002, the federal government directed the nuclear industry to set up NWMO as a non-profit, arm's-length body to advise the government on options for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel.

Whatever option is chosen, says the NWMO, must be "socially acceptable, technically sound, environmentally responsible and economically feasible."

At the release of the report, NWMO president Elizabeth Dowdeswell emphasized that "the engagement of citizens is essential. Effective public policy is built upon an understanding of what really matters to Canadians. We need thoughtful deliberation and dialogue," she said.

"The citizens' dialogues are not intended to supplant expert advice," noted CPRN president Judith Maxwell. "They tell us what values Canadians believe should govern our decisions regarding used nuclear fuel."

Those values, as defined through the dialogue meetings, include:

* Responsibility - live up to our responsibilities and deal with the problems we create.

* Adaptability - develop and apply new knowledge as it emerges.

* Stewardship - our duty to husband resources and leave a sound legacy to future generations.

* Accountability and Transparency - to rebuild trust.

* Knowledge - a public good for better decisions now and in the future.

* Inclusion - acknowledgement that everyone has a role to play.

"The first three address how rights and responsibilities should be shared across generations," said Maxwell. "The last three address how decisions are made and who should be making them. The values are not mutually exclusive and often reinforce each other."

The cross-Canada dialogue made it clear that citizens want to take responsibility and act now on waste created in generating electricity they have used. But they also want to make it possible for future generations to revisit today's choices in the light of new knowledge and technologies.

Participants in the discussions advocated a holistic approach to the challenge of managing used nuclear fuel. They supported conserving energy use, exploiting alternative energy sources and fully assessing the costs and benefits of all types of energy.

They attached high importance to ensuring that they receive the information they need to contribute to decisions about the long-term management of used nuclear fuel. They also indicated support for an independent body, representing both experts and citizens, to see that information is provided and that government and industry do their part.

The NWMO is a small group of professional and support staff led by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, who has served as executive director of the United Nations Environment Program and is a former assistant deputy minister with Environment Canada. It is backed up by an independent advisory council headed by David Crombie, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute. In its capacity as guarantor of the public interest, the advisory council's written comments on the NWMO study will be made public.

The NWMO has committed to working collaboratively with Canadians to develop a long-term management approach for used nuclear fuel that is socially acceptable, environmentally responsible, technically sound and economically feasible. As part of its study plan, it invites citizens to help shape the decision-making process and to participate in developing the recommendation. Its first discussion document, Asking the Right Questions? was released in November 2003.

In addition to the citizens' dialogue, the NWMO has sought expert advice at workshops and has commissioned more than 50 background papers to learn from the best knowledge available in Canada and internationally. A round table has been established to consider and offer guidance on ethical issues. In addition, a multi-disciplinary assessment team is undertaking a rigorous analysis of management approaches.

The NWMO's Web site,, hosts all NWMO research and information and provides interactive opportunities for comments, submissions and surveys.

Following the publication of its second discussion document, Understanding the Choices, the NWMO will initiate a second intense round of engagement including a series of information and dialogue sessions in communities across Canada and several topic-specific e-dialogues. A schedule of these events will be posted on the Web site. Draft recommendations will be released early in 2005 before a final report is prepared and presented to the Minister of Natural Resources Canada by November 2005.

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