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«IAEA-TECDOC-1553 Low and Intermediate Level Waste Repositories: Socioeconomic Aspects and Public Involvement Proceedings of a workshop held in ...»

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2. SETTING THE SCENE Nuclear power plants produce radioactive wastes as unavoidable by-products of electricity generation. Hungary does not have either significant fossil fuel deposits or renewable energy supplies. The contribution of nuclear electricity is crucial to the national economy. Currently about 40 % of the electricity generated in Hungary is produced at the four units of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). The electricity is being generated in the national interest.

Unfortunately, one cannot expect to enjoy the benefits of nuclear power without also having to cope with some problems. Perhaps the most significant of them is the disposal of radioactive waste. The wastes already exist and sooner or later they will have to be disposed of somewhere. The real question is where to site this repository.

The challenges of radioactive waste management are not unique to Hungary; all countries with such wastes are facing these challenges. Nuclear power plants produce two kinds of radioactive waste: low and intermediate-level waste (LILW) and high-level waste (HLW). In Hungary the disposal capacity currently available ensures disposal of institutional wastes (medicine, industry, and research), but a new facility should be built for the LILW from nuclear power plants.

Nuclear fuel for Hungarian NPP, just as for all other East European nuclear power plants, was in the past supplied by the Soviet Union. As a part of Hungary’s agreement on fuel supply the Soviet Union took back all spent fuel (SF). In 1995, the likely interruptions of the SF reshipment lead to a fairly immediate problem in Hungary. The SF pools became totally full by the end of the 1995 refuelling. With storage space in its SF pools running low, and future acceptance of SF by Russia uncertain, the Paks NPP awarded a contract for the construction of a modular vault dry interim storage system. The Hungarian Atomic Energy Commission issued a licence in 1995 for its construction and in 1997 for the commissioning of the facility.

As insurance against the waste remaining in Hungary or being returned after reprocessing, it was highly desirable to proceed by planning for possible disposal of SF some 50 years or more in the future. The investigation of potential host rock for SF/HLW disposal first started in 1993.

This paper sets out the public involvement aspects mostly focusing on the siting of LILW repository.


3.1. Lessons learned from the abortive L/ILW repository siting project In order to reveal the hidden connections between the events and understand the real significance of the whole repository issue, one must have a look at the political conditions and developments of the time.

It must be pointed out that the licensing of the Ófalu radioactive waste repository coincided with the peaceful decline of communism in Hungary. Although the siting of the planned facility started back in the quiet seventies, it was just before the first democratic elections of 1990 when the Minister of Health and Social Affairs of the last communist government announced that she would not give the go-ahead for the construction of the repository.

The political dictatorship, the elimination of traditional civil societies and the severe restrictions on the self-organizing of communities were also the reasons why no significant Western-like environmental movements evolved during the sixties and the seventies.

No information was allowed to become public about the questions relating to the utilization of nuclear energy. Siting of nuclear facilities was regarded as a purely technical matter.

Questions of public acceptability were never paid attention to. The local communities had no choice but to accept the decisions made by the competent authorities. The civil society was not sufficiently organized to articulate local interests and had absolutely no influence on the decision making process. Any protest would have been drastically responded to with administrative measures.

In the late seventies the significance of environmental problems became depressing. This was the time when the first real environmental movements were formed. These movements were already very much motivated by wider political determinations. The bureaucratic central power considered them as a challenge to the whole of the current political system – not completely without good grounds. Many figures of the political opposition also looked on environmental issues as a good starting point for future political confrontations since they could not directly question the political autocracy of the ruling communist party.

The local authorities functioned as the subordinates of the central authorities and were only allowed to execute the central commands. Generally, not much importance was attributed to informing the public since everyone shared the view that the siting of the repository is a purely technical matter and the decision made by the experts must be accepted.

Although Ófalu was recommended as a potential site in 1983 and research works started in 1985, the representatives of the Paks NPP held a presentation about the proposed radioactive waste disposal facility in Mecseknádasd (a neighbouring village of Ófalu), only in1987. On the invitation of the local adult education centre experts of the nuclear power plant explained the design, construction and operation of the repository in detail. This event was followed by similar presentations in the other villages around the site. These presentations were educational lectures about the technical and scientific aspects of the project.

However, some of the audience was simply not willing to accept the technical arguments.

Their point was that if the facility is so safe, then why they had not been informed in the very beginning. They protested against the repository simply because of the nature of the decision making process.

Another problem was that the simple folk were not able to comprehend the dimensions of the project and got frightened by the facts they could not relate to their everyday experience. One of the lessons to be learned from this story is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to convince people about the safety of a hazardous waste repository. They either trust the experts and then they might accept the development or they do not trust them and in this case they will never believe them. Trust is the key word and it was badly missing in this particular situation.

Of course the "Not In My Back Yard" (NIMBY) argument also occurred. The locals did not want any health hazard in their environment and the idea of hosting a radioactive waste repository sounded particularly dangerous to them. Radiation is for most people inexplicable, useable, untouchable, and almost mystically evil in its association with the great twentieth century fear - cancer. Most frightening of all are the unknown effects, the genetic changes which might pass on to future generations.

Some of the locals complained that why should they accept all these risks without benefiting from them at all. Why should the repository be placed near their very villages?

But most importantly, this matter was more than just a question of protecting the environment for the new political leaders of the villages. They also intended to prove that it was finally possible to represent the local interests effectively under the new political conditions. The President of the Council hoped that with this waste issue he could rouse the citizens from the political lethargy of the past decades and consequently his future initiatives will receive more support as well.

First, the organizers of protest tried to use their informal connections to impede the final decision on the construction of the facility. But at the same time they were working hard on activating the local residents and persuading the principals of the other settlements to support the protest officially. Meanwhile they realized that no drastic measures would be taken against them by the central authorities. It turned out that the decision making procedure for the disposal of radioactive waste had not been elaborated yet. It was not clear which authorities were responsible for making the final decision and on what grounds since the relevant regulations had not entered into power yet.

The developer, however, did not seriously reckon with the possibility that the protest that was beginning to take shape could seriously endanger the realization of the project. They were quite self-confident since they had prepared all the required documentation for the submission of the licensing application and some expert authority approvals had already been given by that time. They believed that eventually all the problems would be solved and they went on with the technical arrangements for the construction. The technical experts did not see that human protest was fundamentally different from the technical difficulties they encountered in their work. They did not expect any emotional reactions and did not know how to deal with them.

All their experience from the construction of the nuclear power plant itself suggested that the actual licensing will only be a formality since they had carried out all the prescribed investigations and the results were satisfactory. The realization of the waste disposal facility only represented a technical problem to them.

The investor believed that they were acting in the public interest because it seemed to be obvious that the waste had to be disposed of somewhere and they wanted to construct the repository on the site which was considered the most suitable site available. They did not pay attention to the local opposition, as in their understanding, the national interest prevailed over any individual interest. So far the state had never hesitated to enforce the fulfilment of what was declared to be the interest of the society.

All in all, the story was often presented as the struggle of a small ethnic community against the unseeable evil which was the danger of radiation in the first reading but could also be interpreted as the absolute power of the central authorities. The President of the Mecseknádasd Council who started the protest became a well known person all over the country and was looked upon as a hero by many. In February 1988 the villages concerned set up a so-called Social Committee to represent their opinion on the issue, and the President of the Council was elected to chair the committee.

The Social Committee decided to invite a group of experts (the Independent Expert Committee-IEC) to form an opinion about the suitability of the proposed site. The IEC found the proposed site unsuitable to host the repository. Their negative opinion provided clear arguments for the opposition of the project. The residents of the villages expressed their fears in a petition that was signed by thousands.

The authorities did not know how to deal with the protest. It would have required a united effort to break it but such a solution was not possible any more since the movement had its supporters in both the state and the communist party apparatus. Those who were against it did not want to act upon their own responsibility since it would have endangered their political future. Some party officials even tried to interpret the matter for the Central Committee as an example of the blossoming out of local democracy under the communist system.

The insufficiencies of the regulations also came to light. The decision-makers got confused, and they did not want to take sides either for or against the project. They hoped that the negotiations between the representatives of the developer and the independent experts would be successful. However, no agreement was reached during these negotiations.

Another lesson to be learned from this case is that it must be defined in advance by whom and by what criterion the decision on siting of radioactive waste repositories will be made. Of course the different opinions and the variety of interests have to be taken into consideration, but someone must bear the responsibility for the decision (or the lack of the decision). No authority was willing to take the unpopular job of making that decision under the circumstances described previously.

Eventually, the most prestigious scientific body in the country, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was invited to express its opinion on the question. Both sides expected that the Academic statement would be in their favour. The developer also hoped that the pause would pour oil on troubled waters. This was not the case, however. Since 1989 was the year of radical political changes, the protest movement against the repository became a precedent for the opposition of the political regime.

The local residents became more determined. With both the media and the public opinion on their side, they were not willing to withdraw any more. It was only at this stage that the company started considering how the locals could be won over. They called on the President of the Council with an offer of compensation. The timing could not have been worse since he was already looking forward to the Academic statement which, he suspected, would decide the question in their favour anyway. Moreover, the offer was not specific enough; it was not clear what they offered exactly and what they wanted to compensate for. Such a compensation offer only intensifies the sense of danger among those concerned. No wonder the answer was plain rejection.

Then the developer made another late attempt to gain public acceptance. They assumed that since the whole protest movement had originally been started by a few persons, the majority of the locals were not actually against the project. They repeated the offer of compensation through the media and direct mail to each local resident. But it was already too late; the locals were united. Those who would have accepted the development did not dare to express their opinion any more. The village assembly approved unanimously an open letter to the power plant which was published in the newspapers. In this letter they refused the offer as "an unmistakable attempt of bribery". Of course, the outcome of such a proposal could have been entirely different if the investor had come up with it at a fairly early stage.

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