Out in the Open

Public participation can make a difference in the cleanup of toxic nuclear sites.

The power plant disaster that followed Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami exposed the limits of nuclear technologies, as well as industry planning and communications practices. When the unexpected happens, it's easy to find the weakest link in the chain. But until reality hits, it's difficult to weigh the trade-offs between investing in safety and maximizing return on investment.

The Energy Department, for example, has a global reputation as a leader in risk management. Yet despite decades of effort and billions of dollars spent on leading engineering methods, tools and experts, the disposal of radioactive storage tanks at the most polluted nuclear sites in the United States has been mired in legislation, lawsuits and public criticism. But that is changing. In the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated greater transparency in Energy's nuclear waste disposal operations. The department battled credibility problems due to past radioactive leaks and operational issues at nuclear power plants, and staff feared additional public scrutiny.

But previous critics have become allies and advocates, says Linda Suttora, a senior staffer at Energy's Office of Environmental Management. Moreover, risk analysis and decision-making time frames have been scaled back from more than a year to several months. Energy's first attempt at increasing public participation involved posting online documents on the risks of nuclear waste disposal-some exceeding 10,000 pages-and making them available for public comment. Officials were being more transparent, but they discovered stakeholders were frustrated with large technical documents they couldn't understand.

In 2007, Energy restructured how its staff engages partner agencies, industry and the public on developing performance assessments of shallow land disposal of radioactive waste. Energy involved stakeholders in the preparation stage of performance risk analysis. State and federal regulators, Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff and citizen advisory boards were included in tours of facilities, presentations and technical exchanges.

But Energy's technical experts were unaccustomed to presenting to nonexperts. Learning to communicate more effectively with constituencies was another surprise lesson.

Disputes erupted over how to best support federal, state and local decision-making. Yet by engaging with one another, specialists with divergent mandates or technical disciplines discovered that perceived adversaries were interested collaborators.

Suttora says the benefits have been clear:

  • Public participation in the performance assessment development process greatly increased public confidence in Energy's technical analyses.
  • No new lawsuits have been filed since the program was launched.
  • Energy has been able to reach agreements and launch work plans to address intractable problems at leading toxic sites.
  • The inclusion of stakeholders in formulating draft documents resulted in a streamlined review and approval process, reducing decision-making times from 18 months to four.
  • Public comments and concerns have dropped dramatically; moreover, none of the new comments has questioned the overall approach, conceptual model or results. If the information technology industry's experience with open source software development is any indication, there are additional opportunities for the U.S. nuclear community.

Open source allows more eyes to scrutinize complex systems, more experts to provide solutions, and more diversity in resources and perspectives. IT market leaders produce breakthroughs in product resilience, performance and profitability by exposing their software code to external contributions. Seventy percent of the world's Internet servers run on open source software. Participatory development also allows a web of relationships to accelerate learning and improve capacity to respond to cross-industry challenges.

Some Energy officials are advocating participatory engagement for more than just performance assessment. Whether lessons learned from Japan will be gleaned is still to be determined, but Energy's precedent of participatory performance management positions it well to involve diverse voices and resources in making the soundest decisions possible.

Michael Lennon is co-founder of the management consulting firm Adlenn Inc.

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