Still Waiting for Glasnost - Notes on NGO Relations with the Nuclear Establishment in Sweden and the Baltic Sea Area

Presented in session, “Mobilising Knowledge for Ecology”
Living Knowledge 3, Paris, August 2007
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This paper is problem-oriented. We whose experience the contents reflect are active within Milkas, a joint organization made up of Friends of the Earth Sweden and the Swedish Anti-Nuclear Movement for the express purpose of participating in consultations about plans for storage of domestically produced high-level nuclear waste (irradiated fuel, etc.) in Sweden. The paper also draws extensively on input from participants in the international conference, “Coping with Nuclear Waste”, arranged by Milkas in Stockholm in April 2007.

Problems common to many countries ... Nuclear energy is a spin-off from the technology developed to produce nuclear bombs. Unfortunately, the civilian uses of the technology seem to have inherited the culture of secrecy that surrounded the military research and development (R&D) that parented it. That may not be the whole explanation, but the fact is that in most countries nuclear energy is not debated as freely as other hazardous technologies. Nor is it regulated by the same laws. Somehow, governments around the world have found it reasonable to accord nuclear energy a privileged status: economically as well as in regulatory terms.

Neither is the pollution produced by nuclear energy part of the general environmental agenda in most European countries. Even environmental protection authorities (EPAs) know little about radiation. It is not part of their remit. This flaw in the regulatory apparatus has far-reaching consequences (cf. the discussion of the Baltic Sea below).

A sad consequence of this situation today is that it leaves ample leeway for the industry to claim that nuclear energy is “clean”. The companies know it is not clean, but they also know that few people are aware of the kinds of pollution nuclear energy entails. (The regulatory agencies remain silent.) And, as all manipulators of opinion — from Macchiavelli to George W Bush — know, a lie, repeated often enough, will acquire the ring of truth.

Issues relating to nuclear waste management are, by contrast, universally controversial, the main reason being that no credibly environmentally sound solution has been presented. The time frame for the hazards involved is staggering; nuclear waste will pose a hazard to hundreds of generations. And then, there is the NIMBY (“Not-In-My-Back-Yard”) factor: In repeated EU opinion polls 80-90 per cent of the respondents say they would not want a waste repository near their home. This, regardless of the person’s views on nuclear energy.

Another, more general problem that hinders communication about nuclear energy is a frequently prevalent cultural conflict between engineers and laymen. Gustaf Östberg, a Swedish writer (and engineer) who makes a strong case for better communication between engineers and policy-makers, notes that many engineers are instinctively hostile to people who voice doubts. Many engineers, he writes, associate doubt with weakness. (On a crasser level, giving in to doubt may mean costly delays.) Many of us in the environmental movement are sceptics by nature; we are the proverbial “doubting Thomases and Tomasinas”. Little wonder, then, if our attempts at dialogue on nuclear issues often derail?

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