The decision about waste disposal is not taken once and for all, nor will it be common to all places where it occurs. Choosing among management alternatives—deciding what to do—and constructing a management system that enjoys widespread public confidence and support will require the active involvement of technical, political, and citizen partners. Rather than being viewed as a handicap or a threat to current progress, the structural time lapse implied for learning, for institutional revamping, and for developing the capacity to choose among uncertainties can be viewed as a valuable opportunity to build both the scientific and the societal knowledge needed to successfully manage HLW and SNF.
Although public concerns on nuclear power and nuclear waste have been the subject of policy controversy in the United States and most other countries for more than two decades, few national programs have made a priority of social research into these topics. If one accepts that the delays in implementing current policy are at least in part the result of public perceptions and concerns, then it follows that better understanding of these perceptions and concerns, and an effort to bring policy and institutional processes into alignment with their implications, should become an important near-term goal. Only with a dedicated and sustained effort will social science research become a fully functioning support to the nuclear waste management process. Targets for this research should include not only public perceptions and concerns, but also the design of improved organizations, institutions, and deliberative decision processes. This would include study of incentives that social institutions can create for long-term responsibility in management of radioactive waste. 7 Concerted, durable, and adequately funded efforts will be necessary to define and perform needed studies and to monitor their integration with HLW policy process and policy implementation. While such efforts have not yet been organized, the following two recommendations may help focus the effort to be made:
1. A substantial, peer-reviewed social research effort should be mounted to provide constructive input for policy initiatives aimed at managing nuclear waste safely, securely, and equitably.
2. Existing review structures should integrate social science competence and counsel to provide continuing peer review and to monitor policy developments in light of research knowledge and evolving societal views on equity and ethical issues.
7 Incentives for responsible long-term management of common resources are the subject of another current NRC report, The Drama of the Commons (NRC, in press).