Academic looks to learn more about nuclear waste burial perspectives

By Eric Shih
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Thunder Bay Source

What is the notion of an informed and willing community, when it comes to deciding on an industrial project like nuclear waste burial?

That’s the question University of Laval professor Maxime Polleri is interested in studying, and the reason the anthropologist has been in Ignace the past couple of weeks to conduct research on the topic. 

“I want to explore how the social acceptability of industrial projects is determined in liberal democracy that nominally rely on public participation, while being influenced by broader structural factors,” he said.

“I came to Northwestern Ontario to study groups that either oppose or agree to host an underground landfill site for spent nuclear fuel.”

Academically speaking, Polleri said he is interested in understanding how different factors, such as culture, gender, political affiliation, or employment, influence the internal logic of consent.

“I am also interested in identifying the broader socioeconomic factors that will impact willingness,” he added.  

Polleri said his impression of Ignace is that it’s a community that suffers from structural problems specific to Northwestern Ontario, including a declining population, a precarious economy affected by the boom and bust of the mining or forestry industries, and a lack of supports from both provincial and federal governments. 

“These factors will tremendously impact the social acceptability of a nuclear waste-sitting project,” he said. 

Polleri said since is research is ongoing, what he can share is very limited.

However, he said the unique scope of the decision which has such a long-time span forces a deeper conceptualization of what an informed consent implies.

“Unlike other projects surrounding extractive, hydroelectric, or forestry industries, which are based on relatively short risk/benefit temporal scales, the specificity of nuclear waste complicates the theorization of an informed consent,” he said. 

“Governance associated with the long-life cycle of nuclear waste outgoes current generations, present governments, as well as the lifespan of languages like English or French.” 

He answered a question about how communities can talk about a controversial issue like nuclear waste by saying sound debates around nuclear issues can only happen in a context of independent research or coverage.  

“Historically, a lot of issues surrounding nuclear topics were embedded in a culture of misinformation, secrecy, denial, and collusion that was heavily shaped by the Cold War. As a society we need to be aware of the cultural context that influenced how we speak about nuclear issues,” he said. 

“We also need more independent organizations, research groups and academic institutions that are, as much as possible, at arm’s length of industries and political movements.” 

Polleri said it’s important to know about how academic research is conducted, which does not include endorsing one viewpoint or another. 

“As a researcher, it is important for me to analyze each perspective within its context of production, while looking at how power plays, historical contingencies, or cultural factors potentially influence the social acceptability of this project,” he said. 

“Regarding the process of research, it is essential to listen to people who both approve and oppose this project. Listening to only one side of the story creates an echo chamber that limit exposure to other perspectives on the matter.” 

He said it is also important to stress the fact that not all perspectives are equal or relative and that it’s important to note not everyone possesses the same resources to influence the outcome of a project based on knowledge, organizational supports, or money. 

His research has taken him to other communities like South Bruce in Southern Ontario, which is also going through a similar process to Ignace.

Polleri said he expects his research to be published in five to seven years.