Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Speech to Council on Managing Radioactive Waste Safely

Below is the copy of my speech to Copeland Borough Council's special meeting tonight on the Decision to Participate in the next stage of the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely process, amended to reflect the changes I made during the meeting to ensure it was accurate and up to date.


Thank you Mr Mayor, Councillors, Aldermen, members of the public from Copeland and beyond.

Let me say up front, as this isn't some drama where I save the big reveal until the end – I believe we, Copeland Borough Council, should take the necessary and right decision to participate in the Managing radioactive Waste Safely process.

That isn't to say, however, that there are not some very important issues to air and discuss, many of which have been and will be covered by fellow Councillors.

If certain voices are to be believed, this debate concerns the most important decision ever to be taken by this council.

However, I believe such over-hyping is damaging to seeing this debate and the decision in its proper context.
Yes this debate concerns the formal Decisions to Participate in the MRWS process, but this is only one of several opportunities available to pause and take stock of our involvement over the course of the next fifteen years or so.

As I see it, this debate and the decision to participate merely involve asking geologists and other experts to take a closer look at the geology in a desk-based study, while in parallel we continue the discussions which have already started regarding the social and other aspects through the formally constituted Community Siting Partnership.

However, as I have said, there are still some vitally important issues to air.

I would like to give my own position on two main points which have emerged in the public debate, before covering one of my own particular concerns for the next stage of the process.

Firstly, that the geology of west Cumbria is unsuitable.

I find this a peculiar justification for not proceeding to more detailed geological investigations.
The right time to take a decision based on geology is after stages four and five, when we have the proper information from the desk study and borehole data in front of us.

The second issue prevalent has been public opinion.

Yes there were a high percentage of responses to the Ipsos MORI polls stating they knew little about the MRWS process.

However, to use this as a justification for withdrawal fundamentally misunderstands public opinion and its basis.
Opinion polling elicits an immediate response.  Poll anyone on the vast majority of issues and it would reveal a similar pattern.

People are entitled to hold an opinion while knowing little about it.

At the moment the MRWS process is neither salient nor proximate for very many people by virtue of it covering a wide area with no specific site or sites identified or likely to be any time soon.

The issue simply isn't that important to many people until it is almost literally next to or under them.

I find it incredibly patronising that some people with no background in opinion polling or generally any experience of or training in the political or social sciences exhort us to follow their apparently more valid ‘informed’ opinion rather than the overwhelming opinion of the residents of Copeland.

My main concern however is the definition of an affected community.

We are at the moment at a stage where all of Copeland and Allerdale Borough Council areas are involved in MRWS, and may continue to be so after the 11th October.

In this situation the Council has simultaneously taken on the role of both decision making body and host community.

However, Copeland is not a community and nor will it be the sole holder of the title ‘host community’.
Indeed, as page 14 of the MRWS white paper says:

“Local government will be fully engaged in a partnership approach and will play a part in local decision-making during the site selection process”

However, the white paper is not terribly specific about what a host community will be nor how such decision making will look like in reality.

I believe that as a site or sites begin to emerge, this Council and partners on the community siting partnership must allow for the potential sites and affected community to be incorporated.

Unfortunately, an affected community is not a simple task to define.
As I have said, it is not just the Borough, but nor is it just any town, village, parish or small area which contains the repository site.  It is more complex.

Work conducted for the European Commission’s Framework 6 project Community Waste Management in Practice, of which I was a part, concluded that defining an affected community is a two-stage process.

The first stage, a Directly Affected Population is identified.

This focuses on the individuals who perceive themselves as suffering some type of dis-benefit as a consequence of the planning, construction or operation of a radioactive waste facility.

It may be, however, that this does not conform to an existing community.

It may exist within a wider community or may extend over a number of communities in a wider area – especially if transportation routes to a facility are taken in to account.

Therefore, the second aspect of the definition of an affected community must focus on the relationship between a directly affected population and the wider definitions of community - the geographical, administrative and social context.

The directly affected populations may possess some elements of a community but as John Donne famously wrote no man is an island.

Experience from elsewhere in the UK, such as the siting of a Low Level waste facility at Dounreay, suggests while a directly affected population will possess many distinctive characteristics, they emerge as a subset of the wider community or communities.

I raise this as an issue now, before the Community Siting Partnership is formed as a key challenge is to respect and accommodate a plurality of communities and the diversity of their interests and perspectives.

Given the argument that later in the process, as a site is identified, any such directly affected population may argue they did not volunteer to take part in the first place, rather they were volunteered by Copeland Borough and Cumbria County Councils, you see my concern for proper governance.

Additionally, it impacts upon the thorny issue about who has the right to withdraw and what special recognition any directly affected population should have.

I believe that these are important issues to raise now, as the executive - I hope - makes the right choice for my electorate in the Hillcrest ward and all of the Borough and makes the decision to participate and take Copeland into stage four of the MRWS process.

Thank you Mr Mayor, fellow Councillors, aldermen and members of the public for your time and attention.

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