Nuclear energy is essential to combatting climate change and reaching our nation’s goal of a net zero economy by 2050.
But, when people talk about nuclear energy, they wonder where the waste will go.
I’ve dedicated my professional career to help solve this issue and it’s the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) legal obligation to make sure that we do.
We can’t continue passing this problem on to future generations.
Now is the time for progress.
We recently asked for the public’s feedback on using a consent-based siting process to identify sites for the consolidated interim storage of our nation’s spent nuclear fuel.
DOE has taken these responses and summarized them in a new report to help inform our consent-based siting process and develop future funding opportunities for interested groups and communities to learn about these efforts.
When building a system of consent, listening is key and this report is the definition of letting communities and stakeholders know that we heard them loud and clear.
We all want to be heard, and this summary is the first step in building a long-lasting, trusting relationship between the DOE and the communities we will serve.
Breaking Down the Feedback
In the past, I’ve responded to requests for information as a private citizen in the hope that my input would be useful.
Now, as the leader of DOE's R&D portfolio for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, I get to read thousands of pages of responses and know that the input is, in fact, useful.
A few major themes appeared in the Request for Information.
Understandably, distrust and fairness were frequent themes in the comments.
Public response analysis on using consent-based siting process to identify Federal interim storage facilities.
Commenters feel DOE has not taken meaningful steps to build trust and relationships with communities and stakeholders.
Some commenters also feel that a new, independent organization should be created to lead waste management efforts.
DOE is, indeed, responsible for this process and we hope to rebuild trust and relationships with the public.
We also recognize that relationships between the DOE, potential host communities, and other stakeholders must be built on collaboration, two-way communication, information sharing, and accountability.
This will ensure a fair consent-based siting process.
Commenters also expressed feelings of support and skepticism around the success of a consent-based siting process.
We believe that a consent-based approach, driven by community well-being and community needs, is both the right thing to do and our best chance for success.
We plan to shape our consent-based siting process, with help from communities and stakeholders, until we successfully site a safe and secure facility to store spent nuclear fuel.
Several commenters also expressed opposition to developing consolidated interim storage.
While we hear these concerns, DOE recognizes that the communities currently storing spent nuclear fuel never agreed to host the material long term.
Nuclear Energy Perception
Finally, some commenters also viewed nuclear energy as fundamentally flawed and disagreed that this technology will be needed to mitigate climate change.
It is very clear that we need the nation’s largest source of clean power to reach our ambitious goals of net-zero and we plan to openly communicate the benefits of nuclear energy to help alleviate any concerns on this firm, dispatchable clean energy source.
DOE Action Steps
In an effort to build and sustain strong, trusting relationships, we identified six key priorities to guide the implementation of a successful consent-based siting process:
1. Implement congressional direction to pursue consolidated interim storage in a way that maximizes the potential benefits of an integrated nuclear waste management system.
2. Address the current lack of trust in DOE by making changes internally and externally. Internally, DOE is working to improve its follow through on commitments and candidly acknowledge past missteps. Externally, DOE is embarking on a consent-based siting process that is inclusive, community-driven, phased, and adaptive.
3. Ensure DOE’s consent-based siting process is fair. This procedural justice means actively and equitably engaging with communities; appropriate levels of Tribal, State, and local government; and other interested parties in all phases of the process. It also means providing the resources and data communities need to participate fully and make informed decisions.
4. Focus on fairness in siting outcomes as well as process. We will prioritize equity and environmental justice considerations, work collaboratively with communities to define what constitutes consent, and consistently recognize communities’ needs, priorities, and voices, as well as Tribal Nations’ rights to self-determination and sovereignty. A community’s participation in a voluntary, equitable, and consent-based siting process should be of lasting benefit, even if the community ultimately chooses not to host a facility.
5. Continue planning for the safe transportation of spent nuclear fuel in close cooperation with Tribal and State partners and regional groups to address radioactive-material transportation issues and respond to the concerns of communities near proposed facility sites and along potential transportation corridors.
6. Rigorously apply safety, security, and other relevant criteria in assessing the suitability of potential sites for different types of spent nuclear fuel facilities. A consent-based siting process should unfold in phases and include a series of evaluation steps, including suitability assessments. DOE anticipates that potential host communities may want to make their own assessments of the impacts and risks of proposed facilities and is committed to helping communities conduct independent studies related to safety and other issues of concern.
We appreciate the public’s input on developing a consent-based siting process and are committed to making every reasonable effort to incorporate suggestions and address concerns.
We are also aware that these comments do not fully represent the ideas of all relevant communities and stakeholders.
We plan to continue our outreach and engagement efforts to ensure that the views of Tribes and underrepresented groups are included, understood, and considered in future DOE policies and decision-making related to consent-based siting and consolidated interim storage.
This report will be followed by an updated consent-based siting process document that incorporates this feedback. We also plan to issue a funding opportunity to support learning and help build a community of practice in consent-based siting.
Stay tuned for this conversation to continue because it’s just getting started.