In Focus

An ongoing task

Public participation in repository site selection: a once-in-a-lifetime project

A repository right on my doorstep? For many people, that’s impossible to imagine. They have fears and concerns that can spark major opposition to the facility. So in the search for a suitable site, it is important to consider not only technical and geoscientific issues but also society’s needs and expectations. The early and active involvement of the public is therefore key. How can citizen participation work, and which challenges can already be identified in this once-in-a-lifetime process? These issues are among those being addressed by the Oeko-Institut.

“The search for a repository site faces a monumental task, namely that its outcome has to be accepted and tolerated by the whole of society – including, above all, the people who will be directly affected,” says Dr Bettina Brohmann, Research Coordinator for Transdisciplinary Studies at the Oeko-Institut. “This can only be achieved in a transparent, stepwise and consensus-oriented process that actively involves citizens and facilitates co-design.” What is needed is citizen participation that goes beyond information and consultation: there must be open dialogue with scope for participants to shape the process, she says. The foundations have already been laid. “With the reform of the Repository Site Selection Act, a new form of public participation was established: a self-reflecting and learning process. This is a particular challenge but also a great opportunity.”

A successful process

How can the formal and informal types of citizen participation be optimally designed? This question was explored by the Oeko-Institut on behalf of the German Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE) in the project “Public Participation in the Siting Procedure for a Final Repository: Challenges of a Cross-generational, Self-reflecting and Learning Procedure”. Together with the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and team ewen GbR, the researchers began by carrying out a comprehensive review of the current research literature and analysing lessons learned from various other participation processes. “On this basis, we then sketched out what good public participation in the site selection procedure might look like and how much scope the Repository Site Selection Act offers here,” says Dr Brohmann. It is important, she says, to allow for diverse forms of participation which can be added to over time and continuously reviewed and modified if necessary. “In addition, all stakeholders should be involved in the process from the start, and sufficient time and financial resources must be made available for this, along with appropriate structures. The objectives and the scope for participation should always be clearly communicated.”

Other factors that contribute to successful participation are openness and interest in the outcomes of citizen involvement – and, of course, systematic consideration of these outcomes in the further process. Here, reflection and learning are important, not only within the institutions but also among stakeholders. “This is the only way to ensure that this is genuinely a learning procedure. And that means accepting that there may well be changes – after all, this is a long process,” says Dr Brohmann. “At the same time, the process must remain robust and stable, even if the broader societal conditions change.” Close cooperation among all participants from politics, the public authorities and civil society is also essential, she says. “We need a shared knowledge basis and joint input to the present and future processes.” Furthermore, as the process continues, the regions that are being considered in more detail as a repository site must be monitored and supported, with a focus on regional disparities in the resources and capacities needed to make a genuine contribution to the process.

Forms of participation

The Repository Site Selection Act provides for various types and forums for public participation. A launch event in October 2020 marked the start of preparations for the three subsequent discussion meetings of the sub-areas conference. The meetings are a forum for discussion of the BGE’s results, which are set out in the Sub-areas Interim Report and serve as a basis for the selection of siting regions and, ultimately, of a repository site (for more details, see “A multi-coloured map” on p. 4). The sub-areas conferences will be followed by regional conferences. “These will be held wherever surface exploration is carried out. Their purpose is to provide information and facilitate the involvement of local people, who can then demand further reviews via the regional conferences,” Dr Brohmann explains. The Council of Regions, composed of representatives of the regional conferences and the municipalities with interim storage facilities, will also monitor the process from a transregional perspective and assist in weighing the interests of the possible siting regions. “In addition, there are other more informal forms of public participation, such as workshops to promote youth involvement, online consultations and digital dialogue forums. Another key element is an information platform which, among other things, provides updates about the status of the search and makes key documents available.”

A learning process  is desired

Many formats are emerging and are, in some cases, already being critically reviewed. Rightly so, according to the Oeko-Institut’s expert. “At the moment, the process is not working as well as it could,” she says. “This is undoubtedly due to the fact that we are dealing with new institutions and structures.” The sub-areas conference in February 2021 was very well-attended, with more than a thousand participants, but was held entirely online, which posed particular challenges. “It made it difficult to enable all groups to have a say and be heard to an adequate extent.” One criticism was that the events held to date have left too little scope for dialogue and discussion and that the learning process is still too slow. “It is also still unclear how recommendations are to be reviewed and then genuinely accommodated in the process.” Better access to scientific knowledge is also needed, she says, perhaps via a scientific body that can provide assessments and expert appraisals as required. “There also needs to be more representative participation and communication with the public. So we need to motivate other groups, such as youth associations and the churches, to participate in the events.” As an expert in citizen participation, she would also like to see more media engagement. “The work with the media should be expanded; among other things, there should be more emphasis on the innovative character of the selection procedure.”

A repository right on my doorstep? Ensuring that Germany’s final storage facility can be tolerated by its future neighbours is a multi-generational, whole-of-society task. It also poses a challenge for the new procedure, which will have to adapt and prove itself again and again over the coming months and years. Last but not least, from Bettina Brohmann’s perspective, a further success factor is genuine recognition of the future siting region, possibly in the form of compensation as a mark of appreciation of the very significant, unique contribution that it will be making to the whole of society.


Dr Bettina Brohmann coordinates research in Transdisciplinary Studies at the Oeko-Institut. Her other areas of interest include consumer and motivation research; participation in decision-making processes; and social aspects of energy and climate policy.