Where storage failed to jar

May 31, 1996

Anna Vari describes how a power plant in Hungary managed to soothe local fears over the storage of nuclear waste

Until recently, spent fuel generated by the Paks nuclear power plant in Hungary has been sent via the Ukraine to Russia. In the past few years, however, protests in those countries have made exporting the waste increasingly problematic. Anticipating further difficulties, the power plant decided in 1992 to establish an on-site retrievable spent fuel storage facility.

Seven applications for the design of the facility were reviewed and GEC-Alsthom, a British company, was selected. Before applying for land use and construction permits for the power station officials began negotiations in 1992 with the local governments of surrounding communities about the possibility of independent monitoring and financial support. As a result, the Association for Public Inspection and Information (APII) was created to represent the interests of the communities involved. Under its auspices, background radiation and the radioactivity of ground water were measured and the results published regularly in local newspapers. Monitoring expenses were covered by the power plant.

The APII played a significant role in increasing the trust between local residents and the power station. It was against this background that the information campaign associated with the siting of the storage facility started in 1993. The campaign included the distribution of printed materials (brochures, pamphlets), a film broadcast on local and national television, national press conferences, public meetings, exhibitions, quiz contests, and a visit to the Wylfa nuclear power station's storage facility in North Wales.

Negotiations between the APII and the power station resulted in an agreement on financial compensation - 10 per cent of total investment costs were to be awarded to the communities affected.

Despite all this, many local residents remained concerned. Opponents of the facility formed the Association for a Sarcophagus-Free Future. In 1994 it organised protest meetings, demanding a significant reduction in electricity prices as a compensation for the risks of the power station. The association collected enough signatures for a local referendum, but it fell foul of a Hungarian law prohibiting the referendum because it fell too close to a general election.

As a response to the vehement protests, the power station stepped up its information campaign and agreed to pay 130 million forints (approximately $1 million) to the Paks municipal government for public information purposes. The Association for a Sarcophagus-Free Future was unable to compete financially or politically with such resources. And mass support for the association eroded as soon as it became clear that it could not get electricity prices reduced.

In June 1994, Gallup carried out an opinion poll in Paks for the local government. Of 300 people asked, 56 per cent were willing to accept the facility, 39 per cent were not, and 5 per cent did not answer. In the autumn, the Paks municipal government issued a land use permit and in 1995 the power plant was issued with a licence by the National Office for Atomic Energy.

What were the main factors which might explain this successful siting? First of all, the power plant conducted a very effective public information campaign. By making provisions for independent monitoring, public control, and financial compensation, the company succeeded in establishing a positive image of itself. On the other hand, half the families of Paks included at least one member who was employed by or had some other connection with the power station. Since the failure of resolving the problem of spent fuel could have led to closure of the plant, it is not surprising that a majority of the population was supportive of the storage facility. Given the very significant tax returns, the Paks municipal government was also interested in maintaining the operation. Finally, the environmental group fighting nuclear activities lacked sufficient resources to mount a successful challenge.

Anna Vari is at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

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