Nuclear Futures - a seminar series to re-make sociotechnical research agendas

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology

Abstract

Geological disposal (GD) of radioactive waste, in deep underground repositories, was first proposed in the US in the '50s yet rarely has final disposal of waste been at the forefront of government and industry concerns. Much waste has been in 'interim storage' for decades. Meanwhile, more is produced through ongoing energy production. The GD approach to civil waste has crept up national policy agendas following an EU Directive in 2011 and the EU's Technology Platform determination that first disposal operations should begin somewhere in Europe by 2025. At various speeds, EU Member States are conducting further scientific research, progressing decisions on where to site GD and undertaking various forms of public engagement. Many countries have made limited headway or have deferred implementation decisions, while Finland has made 'most' progress against the Directive targets and now holds permission to start construction of disposal facilities. The publication of the UK Government White Paper 'Implementing Geological Disposal' in July 2014 (IGD2014) sets out a process to decide on the siting and building of a UK facility. Learning from earlier policy breakdowns the new policy promises to "provide a permanent solution" for the UK's existing and planned higher activity radioactive waste.

The implementation of geological disposal - like many topics on nuclear matters - prompts numerous questions of social, technical, political and ethical character. The Series' primary focus is on nuclear waste, its management and proposed final disposal. However, radioactive waste is interwoven with multiple other concerns including: government policy on building new nuclear plants as part of an energy mix and a low carbon future; and ongoing and future decommissioning projects. For some, these discussions cannot be separated from military affairs, further entangling issues up for debate.

Social science academics have written on nuclear topics in the past and under different policy conditions. However, it is timely to question these earlier works and to enlarge the arena of debate, expanding the social perspectives and including the technical. The goal is to transform thinking to address radioactive waste as a sociotechnical matter and to vitalise our research capacity.

The proposed Series will build on an ESRC initiative in multi-disciplinary research training funded in 2013. That scheme enabled an experimental collaboration between social scientists associated with the White Rose DTC and engineers from the EPSRC-funded Nuclear First CDT. We now seek to expand this research potential beyond training provision and expand to include policy implementation concerns.

In 7 meetings, over two and half years, the Series will bring social scientists from different disciplines together, alongside academic engineering communities, policy and industry bodies.
Each meeting will involve talks from academic and non-academic partners, small group discussions, plenary sessions and activities. The seminars will provide opportunities for social science academics to connect directly to technical research communities and to non-academic bodies involved in GD policy. Policy bodies and engineering researchers will experience the process of social science debate and be exposed to critical thinking on their technical concerns. The meetings will thus enable knowledge exchange between groups that do not regularly interact, including social science researchers with technical policy implementation bodies. Meetings will be concurrent with specific aspects of the IGD2014 policy process: the possibility to inform ongoing implementation work makes the Series particularly timely.

The significance and importance of the Series is evidenced by letters of support from key non-academic bodies and the substantial co-funding of the proposal.

Output will include academic talks and papers; policy briefings; reports and designs for engagement activities

Planned Impact

The overall goal is to provide a forum in which social science, engineering, policy and industry participants can learn, discuss, appreciate and act on, key thinking around the disposal of UK higher level radioactive waste. Social science has much to offer debates around these wastes yet they can often be detached from the technical and policy communities conducting and implementing research in the area, or are focused solely on handling public perception issues. The tradition of research - centred on science and technology studies - which aims to re-frame technical problems as socio-technical matters is largely absent so far. A major impact will therefore be the building of capacity in the social scientific study of nuclear waste, to define new concepts to inform policy implementation and to reframe problem definitions in technical communities.

The White Paper 'Implementing Geological Disposal' (IGD2014) provides a starting point for seminar discussions, although multiple issues for debate will spin out from this on broader science and society concerns and be of interest to wide constituencies. A European lens will provide insight on implementation processes elsewhere, expanding the scope for impact across EU countries. Experience from the halted US policy process will be sought.

Direct beneficiaries include the institutions participating in the series: from social science and engineering academics to policy and industry bodies.
The Series will bring together social scientists who have studied the nuclear realm for a long time with those newer to the topic area, with doctoral and early career researchers, providing a 'generational hand-over' in the study of radioactive matter that has lifetimes of many thousands of years. The diversity of social science perspectives being introduced promises lively encounters that will build capacity to research and to act, and will contribute to reframing policy and practical debates. Participants from technical research communities may be engaging with social science perspectives for the first time. The cross-discipline meetings will provoke multiple challenges to how we conceptualise the science -society boundary far beyond issues of waste disposal.

Key partners from non-academic institutions have been involved since conception of the Series, including Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) the body charged with leading implementation of IGD2014. RWM and British Geological Survey (BGS) specifically have interests in the discussions and outcomes of the Series work. The seminars will run concurrently with early stage policy actions, including a geological screening process and development of a community engagement strategy. The seminars will offer the opportunity to widen debates on the character of these processes and develop understandings of their scope, limitations and implications. Rather than being the recipients of a meeting summary or final report, RWM, BGS and other relevant organisations (e.g. DECC, EDF Energy, National Nuclear Laboratories) will be directly involved in the discussions.

In the design of seminars much emphasis is placed on the process of involvement and in ensuring that relevant actors from multiple sectors are co-present. This direct approach to knowledge exchange is intended to maximise impact through intense dialogue and networking opportunities. The meetings will involve a mixture of formal and informal occasions for debate and learning and will produce a varied range of outputs.

There is the potential for the UK as a whole and other EU countries to benefit from the Series. The policy of geological disposal is an EU-wide imperative. Many questions remain about how national instances of implementation will progress, what sociotechnical hurdles may be met along the way; what the near and far implications are for societies; whether this is the "permanent solution" the White Paper suggests; and what roles social science may play in the mix.

Publications

10 25 50

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/N009444/1 01/11/2015 30/09/2016 £28,890
ES/N009444/2 Transfer ES/N009444/1 04/10/2016 19/10/2018 £22,266
 
Description This seminar series brought together a wide selection of specialist parties, who do not normally meet, to discuss societal and technical dimensions of the Uk government's policy on nuclear waste disposal. We found that these diverse participant groups were able to work productively and provide a range of meaningful perspective on the tasks of the government's implementation body. New partnerships were formed - between academic disciplines and between academic and non-academic partners. A set of working relationships was established between social scientists and the technical implementation body.
Work was started on developing new sociological concepts to understand geological disposal.
Exploitation Route They will be of use to social scientists looking for a model of socio-technical collaboration in complex infrastructure projects
Sectors Energy,Environment

 
Description EU ALLIANCE Strategic Advisory Board
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description EU CONCERT Stakeholder Board
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Independent Oversight Group within DECC
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Peer review and expert advice to RWM commissioned report on social aspects of geological disposal
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description Research recognition in the RWM Science & Technology Plan
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
 
Description Working with Communities - consultation on GDF policy
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
URL https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/working-with-communities-implementing-geological-disposa...
 
Description ESRC IMPACT ACCELERATOR AWARD
Amount £2,500 (GBP)
Organisation University of Exeter 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2018 
End 04/2018
 
Description Early Career Fellowship
Amount £1,200,000 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/N017374/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2016 
End 11/2021
 
Description Impact Accelerator Account
Amount £15,000 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2017 
End 03/2017
 
Description Prosperity Fund
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 03/2017
 
Description Visting Scientist
Amount $922 (USD)
Organisation U.S. Department of Energy 
Department Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Sector Public
Country United States
Start 11/2015 
End 11/2015
 
Description BGS 
Organisation British Geological Survey
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We provide a forum for the technical experts to hear about social research relevant to their areas of interest.
Collaborator Contribution Attendance of technical experts at seminar meetings. Oral presentations to meetings.
Impact None so far.
Start Year 2015
 
Description NNL 
Organisation National Nuclear Laboratory
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We provide access to social science expertise for the technical communities based at the national labs.
Collaborator Contribution Attendance at seminar meetings. Oral presentation of their work. Industry-related input to discussions.
Impact none so far
Start Year 2015
 
Description National Implementation body 
Organisation Nuclear Decommissioning Authority NDA
Department Radioactive Waste Management
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We provide a forum in which social and technical academic researchers, industry and government representatives can meet to discuss issues relating to the disposal of radioactive waste. We use our networks in the following fields: sociology, science and technology studies, geography, planning, to gather expertise in a range of social perspectives to present and discuss social science research that impinges on the work of scientific researchers and on the process of government policy. The social research is aimed to inform and influence ongoing thinking about the disposal of waste and to promote a re-framing of the waste issue - which is often seen as a technical problem - into a socio-technical problem.
Collaborator Contribution RWM provided input to the design of the programme of seminars that the series would conduct. They provided technical clarifications of the areas of work they were interested in. Since funded, they have provided lists of potential speakers and attendees for the meetings. Members of RWM attend the seminars as full participants and on occasion will give formal presentations to the seminars.
Impact The collaboration is multidisciplinary involving academic sociology (with additional contributions from other social science disciplines) and a technical body that includes nuclear scientists and engineers, geologists, chemists etc. The collaboration originated in ESRC DTC scholarships won to partner the White Rose DTC and the EPSRC Nuclear First CDT. Co-supervision of the students between academic social and technical researchers led to the social scientists being introduced to the radioactive waste management directorate (RWM) of the NDA. Initial meetings have led to several outcomes including: co-funding and participation in the proposal for this successful ESRC seminar series; ongoing discussion with members of RWM on the social aspects of the implementation of government policy on disposal; offers to host visiting PhD students (early stage discussions).
Start Year 2014
 
Description Attendance at National Nuclear Labs training, Whitehaven, Cumbria 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Invited to attend a training event for technical people new to the nuclear industry. Took part in debates on nuclear industry, stakeholder perceptions etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description BEIS GDF Working with Communities Consultation workshop attendance 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Shared expertise in social dimensions of geological waste disposal with range of actors, via workshop on BEIS GDF consultations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description China dialogue piece 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Johnstone P, 2016. "Britain's Atomic Waste Legacy", China Dialogue, 6th October.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/9296-Britain-s-atomic-waste-legacy
 
Description Guardian piece 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Stirling, A. Johnstone, P (2018) "Why is the UK so infatuated with nuclear power", 2018. The Guardian online, 29th March.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/mar/29/why-is-uk-government-so-infatuated...
 
Description Presentation at RICOMET 2017 conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Formal presentation at IAEA HQ, Vienna to audience in attendance and via Facebook Live. Purpose was to inform audiences of social science approaches to technical nuclear matters.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://ricomet2017.sckcen.be