Deep borehole disposal of nuclear waste: trust, cost and social acceptability

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Globally, radioactive waste governance has been subject to a participatory-deliberative turn. Increasing the opportunities for public involvement is presented as a means to build trust and to alleviate siting conflicts over facility construction. However, a move towards community partnership and voluntarism in site selection belies a lack of social control over technology choice, given the oft-repeated claim of a settled global scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of waste disposal in a mined geological disposal facility (GDF) 450-800m below the surface. Consensus on the GDF concept is critiqued as a form of ‘sticky knowledge’ and path dependency within a socio-technical regime ¬that began in the 1960s to the exclusion of alternatives. One contemporary alternative is the deep borehole disposal (DBD) concept. DBD emplaces spent fuel, plutonium or higher-activity wastes in boreholes to a depth 5km below the surface. In this paper DBD is subject to socio-technical analysis extending to six inter-related considerations concerning: cost, land use, decision-making scale, trust, geographic distribution and temporality. DBD is presented as a preferred solution to a GDF because it ameliorates the challenges associated with inflexible megaproject development–project size and scale, timing and cost over-runs limit the social acceptability of mined repositories at the community scale. DBD, by contrast, is an incremental technology strategy. A DBD-focused solution lowers public costs and decision-thresholds, localizes waste disposal by reducing transportation, and shortens the timeframe from decision-to-implementation. Together these factors encourage communities to take an active role in the decision-process, maintaining “vigilant mistrust” and accountability in ways that are not possible for a multi-generational, national-scale GDF. DBD is therefore proffered as a means to improve the overall social acceptability of higher activity radioactive waste disposal siting processes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)632-647
JournalJournal of Risk Research
Issue number5
Early online date22 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2022

Bibliographical note

This project was funded by the Euratom research and training programme 2014-2018 under grant agreement No 662268.


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