Improving the “social license” of nuclear waste management

This article, by Molly Aslin, is part of a series highlighting members of the Office of Sustainability’s Experts Database. In a collaboration with instructor Madeline Fisher’s course, LSC 561: Writing Science for the Public, students interviewed campus sustainability experts and produced short feature stories.

Paul Wilson headshotProfessor Paul Wilson, who is the Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering at UW–Madison, knows that sometimes decisions about U.S. nuclear energy policy can seem like the result of secretive, backroom politics. He wants to change that perception by involving communities directly, turning closed-door discussions to community-wide conversations.

A major component of sustainability is social acceptance: even the greenest of technologies will not be deployed if people don’t want them in their community.  When it comes to nuclear energy, Wilson recognizes that the success of nuclear policy does not rely on just regulatory, political licenses. It also relies on a different kind of license, one he calls “social license.”

Wilson describes social license as an agreement between nuclear scientists and the broader community to pursue the development of nuclear energy technology.  

“If we don’t have sufficient buy-in from a broad set of stakeholders, then just having [a] regulatory license may not be sufficient to move forward with the project, and [it] may not be wise to move forward,” he said.

Without this agreement between stakeholders such as scientists, policymakers, and investors in the community, new nuclear technology may be neglected, and traditional, emission-heavy technologies may be used instead.

Wilson is aware of this predicament. As an expert in nuclear waste management, he looks to the story of the Yucca Mountain Deep Geologic Repository as an example of the importance of consent-based development. In the 1980s, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was determined by scientists and policymakers to be a suitable location to store used nuclear fuel, but backlash and concern from local and statewide community members and policymakers prevented the repository from being built. Yucca Mountain remains to this day a case study of the consequences that may unfold if social license is not granted.

The stakes are high, but Wilson hopes his work will provide a way to get more people on board with new solutions for radioactive waste management. One example of his research is software development. He wants to create software tools that will help people such as policymakers and investors analyze nuclear technologies to determine which specific energy solutions fit their needs.  Wilson hopes that this sort of tool will give many different interested parties a way to make informed decisions and agreements on the use of nuclear energy.

Another of Wilson’s projects aims to achieve social license for nuclear waste management technologies through a different method: interacting directly with communities. He is working with collaborators on a series of workshops that will facilitate discussions between technical experts and community members, and he hopes that these workshops can help experts find a balance between community wishes and technical requirements. 

Wilson acknowledges that all stakeholders are coming to these discussions with different points of view.  

“When we talk about clean energy [as a whole, it] largely refers to environmental emissions” such as greenhouse gasses, he said. “But nuclear energy has its own societal questions about” what it means to be clean, “particularly with respect to used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste management.”

Wilson hopes that these workshops will provide room for learning and answer these questions to create future pathways for the advancement of safe, clean nuclear energy.

He also understands that even with these facilitated discussions and accessible analyses, some stakeholders may still choose not to go forward with nuclear technologies. But he wants to provide a consistent framework for stakeholders to decide whether nuclear energy is the right choice for them and give scientists and communities the tools to collectively agree on the use of nuclear technologies.

“My research is trying to understand the socio-political, techno-economic conditions that will make [nuclear energy] the right choice,” Wilson said.