Radioactive wastes have confronted industrial democracies with a confounding and perplexing societal challenge. Siting radioactive waste facilities, in particular, has emerged as a difficult undertaking, primarily because this is where general misgivings about safety and fairness crystallize into specific opposition. Underneath lie deep social issues concerning links between peaceful and military uses of nuclear energy, the transport of nuclear materials, accountability of nuclear institutions, obligations to future generations, fairness of decision processes, and a host of other questions. Compounding all of this has been the historic underestimate of the difficulty of securing societal acceptance of waste disposal facilities. Nuclear pioneer Alvin Weinberg is widely quoted as recognizing, “We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society” (Weinberg, 1994, p. 176). The difficulty of societal acceptance has been confirmed by independent assessments in a number of countries (e.g., OTA, 1982; Office Parlementaire, 1990; CEAA, 1998).
As the following quotes suggest, waste management institutions today face important challenges:
There is a need to view waste management in a wider societal context. In particular, issues such as sustainability, equitable distribution of potential risks and economic reality, are likely to become increasingly prominent, in response to heightened international awareness. (NEA, 1999a, p. 6)
In recent years, waste management institutions have become acutely aware that technical expertise and technical confidence in the geologic disposal concept are insufficient, on their own, to justify to a wider audience geologic disposal as a waste management solution, or to see it through to a successful implementation. . . . Overall confidence must be developed in a much wider audience. . . . (NEA, 1999b, p. 21)
To face these challenges, the committee considers that systematic research into social issues is needed. Deeper understanding of past difficulties encountered in interacting with segments of the public outside the technical community must be sought. New ways of conceptualizing the management task and its social environment must be developed. Innovative practices, and perhaps institutional design, may be called for and, indeed, have been undertaken in many countries. This chapter reviews current knowledge and identifies areas in which knowledge gaps remain.
The chapter is structured to offer insight into why many programs today appear to face insufficient support and confidence on the part of the public. If program managers have not succeeded in developing sufficient societal confidence today, it reflects both past practices and the important fact that the underlying situation, as suggested above, is very complex. A number of issues are discussed in this chapter to describe