Issue: January 2018, Final storage – First steps
“We must build trust and involve the public”
Interview with Professor Klaus Töpfer (National Support Body)
No discussions behind closed doors, no decisions over people’s heads – the search for a final storage site will be transparent, fair and involve the public. A key role in this context is played by the National Support Body (NSB), set up at the recommendation of the German Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste. The NSB, whose members are respected public figures and citizens’ representatives, is tasked with providing mediating and independent support for the site selection procedure and ensuring adequate public participation. In this interview with eco@work, one of its Chairs, Professor Klaus Töpfer, who previously served as Germany’s Environment Minister and as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reports on its remit, objectives and progress so far.
Professor Töpfer, what has the NSB been doing since its constituent meeting in December 2016?
First of all, and under considerable time pressure, we scrutinised the draft of the Repository Site Selection Act (Standortauswahlgesetz) to ascertain whether it complied with the Commission’s stipulations. Our analysis was then synthesised into a set of recommendations to the German Bundestag’s Environment Committee and resulted in significant changes to the legislation – as regards the role of the NSB itself and the banning of exports of high-level radioactive waste, among other things. However, much of our work is still about establishing robust structures for the NSB and putting ourselves in a good position to respond when the discussion of specific sites begins. That means building trust and credibility, and that can only be achieved through transparency and strict independence.
Has there been any direct contact with the public yet?
Yes, of course. All the members of the NSB see consultation with citizens as the most important and central task. For example, in September 2017, we organised a fact-finding visit to the Asse II nuclear waste storage facility. We wanted to form our own impression of the facility, but one of our main priorities was to talk to people. We had some very long and informative discussions with members of the Asse Support Commission about the kind of experience they had gained in dealing with other agencies in the past. We can learn lessons from this for our own work, including the type of mistakes to avoid. And our meetings are open to anyone interested.
What do you see as the NSB’s main role?
It is about involving people in decision-making early on. The time when decisions were taken over people’s heads, with “acceptance” then sought retrospectively, is past. We have to build trust across society as a whole – especially within affected communities. That means involving the public in the site selection procedure from the start. So we have to show that we are able to create conditions for genuine participation. It’s a constant learning process for us as well.
What expectations does the NSB have to fulfil in this context?
Honesty and transparency are key, as is the willingness to listen. We must discover what people need to empower and encourage them to participate. And we must refuse to bow to time pressure, as otherwise there would be suspicion that some concerns and objections are not being addressed. Of course it is important to have a timetable – not least with regard to the interim storage facilities where the high-level radioactive waste is being kept until the repository is open. But finding the best solution will take time. We also have to give people space to see themselves as participants in the decision-making process.
What made you take on this role?
It was not an easy decision for me, partly because I was at the centre of the conflict over the planned repository at Gorleben when I was Germany’s Environment Minister. But I firmly believe that we have to deal responsibly with the legacy of nuclear power. The procedure that is now in place is sensible and workable. This is a massive challenge for the whole of society and I would like to make a contribution.
To what extent do conflicts like the one at Gorleben feature in the work of the NSB?
They are a big part of it. The way in which we deal with the past, its legacy and negative human impacts is a very good indicator of our credibility in tackling the challenges of the future.
Thank you for talking to eco@work.
The interviewer was Christiane Weihe.
Professor Klaus Töpfer
Tel.: +49 30 8903-5761
Professor Klaus Töpfer served as Rhineland-Palatinate’s Minister for Environment and Health from 1985 to 1987. He was German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 1987 to 1994 and Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Housing and Urban Development from 1994 to 1998. An economist, he then worked for the United Nations for eight years, serving as the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. He became founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam in 2009 and continued as its Executive Director until 2015. In 1986, he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit and in 2008 won the German Sustainability Award for his lifetime achievement in the field of sustainability.
Further information (in German only)
Thematic web page: „Das Nationale Begleitgremium“ on the website of the German Federal Environment Ministry (in German)
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