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Bridging Social Science and Engineering to Design Energy Facilities That Serve Local Communities

July 28, 2022

Bridging Social Science and Engineering to Design Energy Facilities That Serve Local Communities

A research team led by the Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Oklahoma is developing a community-led framework to help the U.S. Department of Energy design critical energy facilities in ways that serve the aspirations of potential host communities.

There are plenty of novelties cities will proudly claim – ever heard the road trip trope of visiting the biggest ball of yarn? But it has historically been much harder for local communities to take pride in being hosts for critical energy facilities, particularly those that involve the management of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

On March 26, 1999, on the outskirts of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant received its first shipment of nuclear waste. Congress authorized the construction of the WIPP in 1979 due to its unique geology, a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed resulting from the evaporation of the ancient Permian Sea more than 250 million years ago. Additionally beneficial is its proximity to Los Alamos National Laboratory and the support of key local officials, making the WIPP the first U.S. underground nuclear waste repository to safely store decades of nuclear detritus resulting from Cold War-era bomb making and nuclear research. Since its establishment, however, finding a safe and accepted approach for managing the growing stock of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants has proven to be elusive, drawing opposition from potential host states and advocacy groups.

Now, the Department of Energy is reviewing the process for managing spent nuclear fuel. The Nuclear Energy University Program of the DOE has awarded nearly $3 million to a research team led by the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis with collaborators at University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, New Mexico State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to develop a new approach to “consent-based siting” of storage facilities that brings the questions, concerns and interests of community members to the forefront of the engineering and planning process for future storage sites.

Engaging Community Stakeholders

“As energy security and climate change have become a bigger and bigger problem, nuclear energy is very promising because it provides reliable domestic energy and doesn't emit carbon in the process of producing energy, but it's blocked by the failure to find a reasonable way to handle spent nuclear fuel, “said Hank Jenkins-Smith, co-director of OU’s Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis. “This proposal is using what we've learned from decades of work and focusing it on the problem of how to safely sequester spent nuclear fuel for between 50 and 100 years until it can be managed in a permanent way.”

The researchers contend that an essential missing element of past efforts to develop nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities in the United States is that those who want to build the sites have not provided the potential sites’ community members opportunities to meaningfully shape what it is they are being asked to host. By failing to provide the necessary ways to match the designs of the facilities to the aspirations of communities, those proposing the sites erode a community’s perception of self-determination that shapes its identity and values.

“Going back multiple decades, all of the efforts of consent-based siting for spent nuclear fuel have been haphazard, not consistent, not systematic, and happening after facilities have already been designed,” said Kuhika Gupta, associate research director for IPPRA and the project lead investigator. 

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“We have this spent fuel, it’s already there. We can’t wish it away, and it has to go someplace safe, but the way that these projects were being approached by government agencies and the engineers from the national labs and so forth was almost designed to generate conflict,” Jenkins-Smith said. “The engineers came up with what they thought was an optimal design by assuring safety and keeping costs down. They would approach a community and say, ‘We’d like to put this here,’ and because of the imagery of nuclear issues and radiation and so forth, that evoked an almost knee-jerk anti-siting response.”

Instead, the research team – which includes nuclear engineers, physical scientists and social scientists – has adopted a “community-first approach,” Gupta said. Their project will simulate the process of how to engage a community in the design and construction of a nuclear waste storage facility.

“Part of the problem with previous efforts was that the community was brought in a little too late, so we decided the first phase is going to be community elicitation before anything else,” Gupta said. “We would essentially start with a blank slate, asking the community when thinking about such a facility what are the types of things that come to their mind to try to elicit some of their wishes and needs and vision for such a facility for their community long-term.”

Project collaborators from the Center for Socially Engaged Design at the University of Michigan are helping develop the community engagement assessments. Starting first with a one- to two-day workshop, the researchers will develop tactics to recruit participation in a listening session as well as the questions and mechanisms that could be used to gauge community sentiment. Those “local” data points would then be paired with a national survey to draw out broader themes and gauge public views at both a local and national scale.

“We would take the responses from the community and bring that to engineers and scientists in phases two and three of the project to get them to think about ‘here's what the community wants, now how do we work with this?’” Gupta said. “I think what is truly innovative about this project is that we are flipping that process, going into the community first and then having the scientists grapple with community requests at the outset … then the final phase is bringing them together for a co-design – bringing them together in the same room to come up with broad features of a facility that matches the vision of the community, but also the physical and scientific attributes that the facility needs to have.”

Bridging the Engineering/Social Science Divide

The thread of collaboration and training runs throughout the project, structured in a way that senior scientists on the team would mentor early career scientists. Simultaneously, the team of engineers, physical scientists and social scientists will work together on nearly all phases on the project. The benefits of this are twofold, Gupta said. The collaborative structure provides training for the next generation of experts who would support this work into the future, and cross-training social scientists and engineers to better understand the throughlines between the fields.

“Finding a long-term, sustainable solution to this problem requires both an understanding of the technical decisions as well as the social and political requirements,” she said. “The project aims to train experts who have an ability to recognize and engage along all of these dimensions.”

“When we started this work decades ago, the idea that social science would have a significant role other than as a critic of technology was really far-fetched,” said Jenkins-Smith. “We’ve lived that friction from the very beginning, and this whole project is designed to reverse that – to have the engineers engage with representatives and leaders of communities in ways that reduce that friction, to engage across the social science/engineering divide. Social scientists need to know what these engineering problems are and how they can be addressed, just as the engineers need to understand how their potential solutions are affecting the perceptions and identity and potential futures of these communities.”

Building for the Future

The materials in spent nuclear fuel have a half-life that can span many thousands of years, making the need for a long-term commitment from a host community central to the project’s success.  The interim storage of these wastes – ranging from 50-100 years – will enable the country to develop and implement permanent disposal options.

For Carlsbad and WIPP, Jenkins-Smith said the success of that site is due in part to “core community leaders, residents and others who were serious about making this work.”

“The community envisioned what they wanted their future to look like, and what kind of a role the relationship with the national labs and technical capabilities would mean for their community, he said. “The Carlsbad case is often seen as an anomaly, but from our perspective it has these fundamental characteristics that show how socio-technical collaboration can work to address a problem, to deal with really important social issues that are beneficial to all of us in spite of a lot of built-in opposition to those programs.”

The project, “Integrating socially led co-design into consent-based siting of interim storage facilities,” is funded by the Department of Energy, Nuclear Energy Program, DE-FOA-0002516 IRP-MS-2.