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Achieving public dialogue
Achieving public dialogue

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3.5 Consensus conference on radioactive waste

A second UK national consensus conference was held in May 1999 as part of a wide-ranging public engagement process on managing radioactive waste safely. The remit of the citizens' panel (the term was adopted in preference to ‘lay panel’) was as follows:

The Consensus Conference is to focus on the effective and publicly acceptable long-term management of nuclear waste in the UK, both civil and military, concentrating particularly on intermediate and high level waste. This will be considered by the Citizens' Panel in their capacity as members of the public, taking into account what they see as the relevant issues.

(Palmer, 1999)

The conference was organised by the UK Centre for Economic and Environmental Development (UK CEED) and funded by the Office of Science and Technology, the Natural Environment Research Council, and NIREX – the company responsible for implementing policy on disposal of intermediate-level radioactive waste.

Twenty-two experts selected by the citizens' panel gave 5-minute presentations before debating the issues with the panel. The conference was open to the public and the audience was invited to submit questions for consideration.

Reading 3

Click to read the preliminary pages from the report of the UK CEED Consensus Conference on Radioactive Waste [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . How does this conference differ in the way it was organised and facilitated compared with what you now know of the first UKNCC? If you were organising a consensus conference, what improvements would you make?

The citizens' panel report was well received by politicians, environmentalists and industrialists, who were invited to respond – a welcome development which enhanced the authority of the report. The Minister for the Environment pledged to take note of its findings:

I would like to assure the Panel that there is no question of this report disappearing into oblivion. I think it's going to be listened to extremely carefully. I want to pay a credit to UK CEED for putting on this Consensus Conference which I think is an excellent idea. This is an issue which has bugged this country for decades and I think opening it out, getting citizen involvement, is exactly the right way to try and resolve it.

(Meacher, 1999)

The consensus conference report was fed into a wider process of public and stakeholder consultation which culminated in a consultation paper, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, in 2001 which incorporated several recommendations arising from the consensus conference. On 29 July 2002, for example, the government announced the setting up of a new independent body, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), which was a key recommendation of the citizens' panel report. Part of that Committee's remit was to gain insight into the public's priorities and concerns about the long-term management of radioactive waste in the UK. With the publication of a ‘discussion guide’, written for non-specialists, CoRWM sought to set up throughout the UK a number of discussion groups, which would help inform the recommendations that the Committee would make to the UK Government. At the time of writing more than 500 discussion groups are being set up across the UK, many involving school groups, which aim to feed back views via the reply forms that are included within the discussion guide. Participating groups are largely already established (for example Women's Institute groups) and their discussion will be self-managed. CoRWM's discussion guide includes both background information on nuclear waste and guidance on how organisers might set up group discussions. The outcomes from discussion are to be fed back to CoRWM using a largely open-text questionnaire, which focuses on the ethical (as opposed to economic) issues associated with radioactive waste disposal. Such inputs feed into the construction of the website , which is intended to capture public views in a readily accessible and transparent form. These views should feed into future policy as CoRWM's recommendations take shape.