Lee Towers
Teesside University

Democratic Deficit of the Nuclear

by Lee Towers

Introduction: Democracy – thin or thick?

Liberal representative democracies, as seen throughout Europe and other parts of the Global North, have been critiqued by deliberative democrats and STS researchers for both general and specific reasons. Generally, Dryzek (2000; 2013) claims liberal democracy is ‘thin’ with respect to who participates, the scope of the issues it allows to be deliberated, and its overall authenticity or substantive outcome of the processes. More specifically, STS critiques have long argued that there should be greater participative deliberation over technoscience issues. For instance, Collingridge’s (1980) thesis on the dilemma or difficulties of controlling technology argued that risks and problems were hard to predict for emergent technologies, while for more established technologies control becomes more costly and slow. Additionally, we have the inertia and lock-in problems of established technologies, which include adjacent infrastructure, educational programmes, and the general power dynamics of incumbent technological systems (Unruh 2000). Thus, whether emergent or established, there is a clear case for early and ongoing deliberation among those most impacted by technological systems (Genus & Sterling 2018; Cotton 2017). Finally, on waste specifically, STS scholars also explore questions of injustice pertinent to this essay. For instance, Hecht (Interviewed by Gille et al 2022) frames waste as residual, and examines what it means to govern residuals, why this governance often comes after the fact, and how this governance treats particular people and places as residual, or as waste.

In STS literature, waste has long been seen as fundamentally ambivalent or ‘quintessentially indeterminate.’ Indeed the field has often held ‘multiple, apparently incommensurate values simultaneously’ with respect to waste (Alexander & O’Hare, p. 419). A paradox here is that different epistemological approaches foreground or obscure certain aspects of waste, thus in a sense laying waste to knowledge itself. This ties knowledge to waste, knowing and unknowing, ignorance and occlusion (Alexander & O’Hare 2020) and thus Foucault’s classic power/knowledge dialectic. This essay focuses on the nuclear, which has these waste/resource indeterminacy and power/knowledge dynamics through and through. The next section will consider nuclear waste/s and the knowing and unknowing aspects that surround these waste/s. I then consider the democratic elements of the UK’s current approach to dangerous nuclear waste. Finally, I question why democratic processes are concentrated at this residual end of the nuclear, rather than the energy supply side. I contend that, if our democratic choices are limited to reactions to unfortunate consequences, this suggests a democratic deficit.

Un/knowing Nuclear Waste/s

The nuclear creates waste at both ends of its cycle – namely the uranium fuel and energy production ends – and at many points in-between (see Figure 1). However, as Hecht (2018; 2012) argues, the uranium end is obscured from view in the Global North, thanks to a colonial distribution of benefits and costs. For example, uranium mining has had devastating effects on colonised populations of Gabon (Hecht 2018) and the Navajo Nation (Voyles 2015). However, these impacts are largely absent from nuclear discourse in the Global North. They can thus be seen as processes of unknowing that obscure waste processes and impacts (Alexander & O’Hare 2020; Hecht 2012).

Figure 1: The Uranium Fuel Chain (Hecht 2012, p. 59).

At the other end of the nuclear cycle, our notions of waste are mediated by quite different processes of knowing and unknowing. Geological disposal facilities (GDF) are the conventional solution to waste produced at the nuclear’s energy-production end. GDF’s sit around 500 metres below the surface of the earth, where they contain/dispose of highly radioactive waste for up to 200,000 years. These subterranean facilities are thus crucial sites of knowing/unknowing about nuclear waste. Until 2019, the World Nuclear Association (WNA) considered GDF’s to have been ‘proven safe’ (Ramana 2020). This assessment was downgraded in 2024, when the WNA declared that GDF’s were now ‘widely agreed to be the best solution for the final disposal of most radioactive waste’ (WNA 2024). Nuclear waste management organisations in the UK and Finland agree (NWS N/D; Posiva 2023).

There are three aspects of knowing/unknowing regarding GDF’s. The first is temporal – we cannot accurately model the social and environmental systems with which GDF’s interact over a 200,000 year timescale (Vehmas et al 2023; Ramana 2020). Second, in the act of burying something there is an aspect of forgetting or putting the buried thing out of sight and mind (Skrimshire 2018). Third, it is not clear how we might communicate the dangers of GDF’s over such a time scale, and to whom the message would be addressed. As a confession/warning to the peoples of the distant future? Or an injunction to the peoples of the present to stop creating this dangerous waste (Skrimshire 2018; Hecht 2018)?

Moreover, the categories governments use to represent the dangers posed by nuclear waste are ambivalent. ‘Low-level’, ‘intermediate-level’ and ‘high-level’ nuclear wastes are typically distinguished by their level of radioactivity. However, grey areas exist between different states’ use of these categories, and between the component parts of certain types of nuclear waste. As Parrote (2021) points out, naming and classifying waste is not a neutral activity. Rather, they are acts of power/knowledge that inform decisions about who works with certain wastes, and what is proper to remember. These processes are always iterative, and some classification systems lack the specificity needed to categorise some of the objects to which they are applied. Parrote (2021) describes four categories of waste used by the Canadian authorities. France has six. Belgium has three. Each state thus deals with the problem of classification in their own way. Further, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) had four categories from 1970-1994, then six from 1994-2009, before adopting an intentionally fuzzy set of categories in the years since. The main problem for Parrote (2021) is that these inherently socio-political systems are typically compiled via technocratic, top-down processes with little recourse to open democratic deliberation.

Figure 2: Various categories of nuclear waste and their associated ‘solutions’ (Parrote 2021, p. 8).

Then there is the special case of nuclear fuel and plutonium. Management of fuel and plutonium wastes falls in a grey zone, which has prompted the UK Government to hedge their bets. Although they claim that ‘some radioactive’ resources are ‘not currently classified as waste’ this might change in the future. Materials such as spent fuel, plutonium and uranium may then be stored in GDF’s at some future date (BEIS 2018, p. 12). Within the nuclear industry, the wisdom of this wait-and-see policy has been questioned on grounds of cost, technical feasibility, and safety (von Hirschhausen 2022). Hyatt (2017; 2020) points out that reprocessing of spent fuel from reactors seemed to make economic sense in the 1960s, because of concerns over the price/availability of uranium and fossil fuels at the time. However, changes in both the price and availability of uranium, and the problematic spent fuel from Magnox reactors, have since compromised this assessment. Unfortunately, the UK has stockpiled the world’s largest store of this particularly problematic material over many decades, currently holding a massive 140 tonnes of plutonium (almost twice as much as France, which has a much larger nuclear sector). Hyatt (2017) therefore suggests a dual track policy that would see the UK begin disposing of the plutonium produced by their nuclear sector, along with other adjacent materials that are not converted into fuel. Underlying all these calculations is the clear ‘use’ value of radioactive materials for nuclear weapons, either by states or as the so-called ‘dirty bombs1’ said to be desired by non-state actors. Thus, for many theorists in this space, waste plutonium is a threat to the social good of peace (Von Hippel et al 2019; Winner 1980).

The Democratic Elements of the UK’s Nuclear Waste Policy

Finally, we have the process and politics of nuclear waste disposal. On the surface, these are highly democratic compared to other mega-projects that cost more than £1 billion. However, this is arguably only because of the failure internationally of so-called ‘decide-announce-defend’ (DAD) nuclear waste solutions, which are typically imposed on unwilling communities by nuclear experts with government backing (Cotton 2017). Nevertheless, in Canada, the USA, the UK, Sweden and France there are a variety of deliberative processes that are clearly irritating some within the industry. For instance, the former head of Finnish nuclear waste safety was reported to have said the only remaining task was to spell out the safety case to ‘the less intelligent’ (Ialenti 2020). Similarly, a senior industry actor recently claimed the sector had ‘let too much democracy get in, adding that ‘more rational’ decision making would require ‘hacking this nonsense’ out of the way (Lehtonen (2022). Both of these claims allude to processes of knowing/unknowing. The Finnish statement is a classic if insulting formulation of the deficit model of public understanding, which frames the public as an undifferentiated and ignorant ‘empty vessel’ that needs simply to be ‘filled up’ with information about the issue. Likewise, the second statement dismisses the public good of democracy, and thereby reveals the other end of the deficit model – the democratic deficit that results from scientists and technocrats imposing ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ decisions on the apparently ignorant masses. Those of us interested in such wild notions as justice or democracy may be reassured by the irritation evident in these statements.

My research on intergenerational justice in the context of the UK’s nuclear waste began in late 2022. From the start, this involved expert interviews with pro, neutral and anti-nuclear experts, and a deliberative workshop with young people. It also included extensive documentary analysis and three national case studies on the UK, Canada and Finland. The UK’s search for a GDF appears to be a fairly democratic process, certainly in comparison to Finland – the state that is the closest to opening a GDF. In the UK, a test of public support (likely a referendum) is a stipulated part of the process (BEIS 2018), but authorities in Finland have ignored calls for a local referendum on the siting of a GDF (Vilhunen et al 2022). Nevertheless, nuclear waste policy in the UK, like other deliberative processes, continues to exclude a particular group – children and young people. I argue that this is wrong for practical and normative reasons. Practically, the GDF is an intergenerational project expected to take around 175 years to complete. This means today’s children (and their children) will be managing (or opposing) this infrastructure in the future. Normatively, today’s children and future generations gain little or no benefit from the military and civil nuclear programmes that create the vast majority of nuclear waste. However, these children will be affected by any unexpected impacts or accidents (as happened in the USA’s nuclear waste facility in New Mexico), and by the ongoing and inflating costs associated with nuclear waste management in the future. There are therefore strong practical and ethical cases for involving children and young people in deliberation over things that will impact them more than current adults. This involvement could be facilitated by lowering voting ages in whatever test of public support ultimately takes place. However, there is a broader issue that undermines both the UK’s search for nuclear waste solutions, and the Government’s claims (BEIS 2018) that this search constitutes a properly democratic process.

A Democratic Deficit of the Nuclear?

Any energy source has an upstream end concerned with supply and production, and a downstream end concerned with consumption and waste. In Figure 3, the upstream end of the nuclear is represented by the blue and red boxes, which depict the mining of uranium and the operating of the reactor. The downstream end involves the energy consumed by the reactor and the processes of storage and disposal of waste, depicted in the brown boxes.

Figure 3: The Nuclear Fuel Cycle (Energy Information Administration 2023)

Democratic deliberation tends to be concentrated at the downstream end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Democratic inputs thus most often concern issues arising from the processing and disposal of waste, including the siting of GDF’s and other such facilities. Wilsdon & Willis (2004) argue for greater democratic input into upstream processes that include the mining, conversion, and enrichment of the fuels we feed into nuclear reactors. Although the dividing line between upstream and downstream processes is always contestable, and policies must also address concerns about local implementation and unexpected outcomes (Doubleday and Wynne 2011), it remains a key distinction for debates about nuclear democracy. Upstream deliberation became a possibility with the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), which was established in the UK in 1997 after repeated failures associated with top-down nuclear waste governance. CoRWM conducted an in-depth social and technical study of deliberative democratic inputs into UK nuclear policy. At the end of this process in 2006, they reported that a GDF was the ‘best’ solution2 for the UK’s nuclear waste, but that this should be sited within a community that volunteers to host the facility and retains the right to withdraw from the process. They also said the GDF should be for ‘legacy’ or ‘unavoidable’ nuclear waste already produced, lest it be seen as a ‘green light’ for new ‘avoidable’ nuclear waste from new builds (CoRWM 2006, p. 13).

The Labour Government of the time was initially unconvinced that the financial and social costs of nuclear power were viable. A 2003 White Paper stated that nuclear power’s economics were ‘an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity.’ As the waste issue was unresolved, the white paper recommended that future use of nuclear be subject to ‘the fullest public consultation’ (DTI 2003, p. 12). However, the Labour Government quickly (and unaccountably) u-turned when the Prime Minister called for a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in 2006. On becoming Government policy in 2008 (HM Government 2008) the recommendation of a ‘fullest public consultation’ was dropped. This prompted Greenpeace to sue the Government. Greenpeace won the case, and the court ordered the Government to carry out a public consultation (Cotton 2017). However, Prime Minister Blair vowed to ignore the consultation and continue with nuclear expansion. This u-turn, Geels (2014) argues, was a result of the instrumental power of the nuclear lobby and their direct access to the Prime Minister.

Since then, successive UK governments have quietly ignored CoRWM’s condition that the GDF be used for legacy waste alone. Successive Governments have used the mandate provided by CoRWM for the GDF process, while upping the ante with 10, 16 and now 24GW(e) of ‘planned’ new nuclear now set to provide ‘clean, reliable and abundant energy’ as part of efforts to mitigate the climate crisis and provide energy security (Gov.UK 2024). This places pressure on the already difficult nuclear waste process by increasing costs (£263 billion upper estimate), adding new risk factors, and extending the timeline of an intergenerational project (175 years and counting) by anywhere up to one hundred years. There have also been suggestions that a second GDF may be required (Thomas 2023).

This all makes the democratic element of the GDF process seem limited and limiting. If nuclear is so ‘clean’, ‘reliable’ and ‘abundant’ (note the absence of ‘cheap’), then why not allow it to be subject to democratic deliberation? I make no claims about which energy source will ultimately best mitigate the climate crisis. Risks cannot be removed, only swapped or reduced, and it is always possible that not using nuclear will create other risks like those associated with carbon capture and storage. These are monumental socio-political choices that require open and ongoing deliberation, not spurious scientistic claims that there is no alternative.

In summary, I call for a new CoRWM-like process to allow the UK to collectively decide its energy future, and to keep on deciding. The alternative is a deficit, not of public understanding of science, but of democracy. This deficit dovetails with a general democratic decline inspired by a neoliberal politic that attempts to place the economy beyond democratic purview. This particular democratic deficit is specific to the nuclear, because of its fraught history, massive costs in relation to renewables, fundamental links to the military industrial complex, and the difficult-to-comprehend temporal longevity of the waste it produces. These factors combine to make the nuclear a particularly problematic technology in both spatial and temporal terms, and thus subject to fundamental questions of inter and intragenerational justice and democracy.


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Author biography

Lee Towers started his postdoc at Teesside University in November 2022 working with Professor Matthew Cotton on a project exploring intergenerational justice and nuclear waste. He is currently writing a short book on these issues as an extended literature review, which will be published by Routledge (in October) as Environmental Justice, Intergenerational Democracy, and the Case of Nuclear Waste. He completed his PhD (titled: Energy, Justice, and low-carbon transitions: a governmentality analysis of the role of community energy in the UK) in October 2022. While focusing on local solutions like community energy, this project explored the history of energy and its role in empire building, and how it manifests presently in fossil capital and big-E energy solutions (large scale offshore wind or large hydro) favoured by states like the UK. Before his PhD, he completed an MSc in environment and development at the University of Leeds and an MA in modern European history at the University of Manchester before this. Lee is mainly a qualitative researcher comfortable using various theories and methodologies, but he’s also been teaching himself python and data analysis. His publications include:


1 I am not sure why the nuclear weapons of states are not also considered ‘dirty,’ as they tend to be more powerful and toxic.

2 ‘Best’ is relative here. Other solutions included shooting the waste into space.