I am keen to stimulate debate and am therefore openly publishing my initial suggestions regarding recommendations on this site. Your comments are welcome. If you wish to correspond with my privately please find me through my Linkedin or Facebook profiles or through Twitter @cyberrhetoric.
Rebecca Hanson MA(Cantab.), MEd, FRSA
In 2007 the consultation regarding geological disposal of higher level radioactive waste succeeded because it was open and evidence based. In 2013 I believe it failed for the reasons listed below. While much can be done to make it more likely that a process of consultation will succeed, we should always remember that should evidence arise which indicates that the proposed way forward is not the best route or is unsafe in ways which have not been considered, any credible consultation should recognise this and should be designed to fail if it cannot effectively respond to the concerns raised.
Firstly the evidence base was not sufficiently wide and was not kept up to date. Several major countries had focused on developing reactors to process their waste. Their progress and the potential of this technology was not properly understood by the consultation. The Cumbria community contains many who can generate world class conversations on this topic. They should have been finding that the insights their conversations generated were already available as part of the evidence base for the debate but instead they found that the scope of the consultation had excluded all other technologies since 2007. Regarding geological disposal, the videos being used which summarised what is happening in other countries were the same in 2013 as they were in 2007. In 2007 they were convincing. The fact that no further information had been added at a time of great technological development left them looking like propaganda six years later.
Recommendation 1: that the research base to be widened to include all methods of disposal and that the publicly presented research base be regularly updated.
Secondly the methods of consultation, which were set up to be transparent in 2007, predated mainstream social media and were therefore not transparent in 2013.
All major decisions are now analysed and challenged by the ‘Facebook chatterers’. In many cases this is a very positive thing. It enables the intellectual content of decisions to be more freely crowd sourced and it can create fuller transparency and deeper engagement as it allows the scrutinising public to ask all the questions they want to ask before making a decision. However it is only a positive thing if the organisation making the decision engages with social media intelligently and if those running the consultation are empowered to assimilate and change the course of action based on relevant and genuine crowd sourced information received.
It seemed that in this consultation the official consultation and the social media consultation were like big ships that passed in the night, aware of each other on their radar but not communicating or building a clear visual picture of what the other was. It also seemed that the ‘consulting team’ were not really a consulting team at all. They were a team there to convince people of a conclusion decided long ago by others. Social media makes such behaviours deeply toxic. Oppositional evidence such as that presented by Stuart Hayzeldine is introduced and discussed at length. There are contributors (and I was one of them) who will try to balance the evidence but I and others found that we couldn’t. The evidence simply wasn’t available or if it was it wasn’t in a form where I could access and analyse it sufficiently rapidly.
Recommendation 2. That a team be set up to work together to engage with social media. They need to include people who fluent in engaging with social media by evidence basing comments, never attacking individuals, never responding to personal attacks and so on (more here). They need to have fluent, evidence based answers to points which are raised by critics such as Stuart Haszeldine which they should present every time his points are made. But, most importantly, they must have the capacity to influence things if they find evidence which justifies alternative ways forward.
Thirdly, it seems ludicrous that only sites in Cumbria were being considered. This led to a situation where many Cumbrians felt that a Cumbrian solution was being forced on them. It also made it virtually impossible to have any objectivity regarding the compensation package to be offered.
Recommendation 3. That sites be considered outside of Cumbria
Fourthly, it needs to be recognised that there has been a breakdown of trust and a failure to learn lessons from the past. While the adoption of recommendations 1, 2 and 3 will help to restore trust, this consultation process has exposed cases where decisions have been made at and implemented at Sellafield in cases where individuals knew that these decisions would not deliver the results claimed.
Recommendation 4. That cases of past failures such as the MOX fuel plant be openly investigated.