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Environmental Impact Assessment as a social process: The case of nuclear waste storage in Sweden

L’évaluation de l’impact environnemental en tant que processus social. Le cas du stockage des déchets nucléaires en Suède
E. Carina H. Keskitalo, Annika Nordlund et Urban Lindgren


Le processus sous-jacent de l'évaluation d'impact environnemental (EIE) pour les grands développements est souvent conçu pour offrir des opportunités aux membres des organismes publics et des ONG d'exprimer leurs opinions. Cette étude décrit le processus d'EIE menant à une prise de décision sur la question du stockage des déchets radioactifs en Suède. Alors qu'il devrait être possible pour une autorité décisionnelle de rejeter une EIE sur la base d’une non-participation du public ou des ONG, cette étude illustre la manière dont le processus d'EIE peut être formé à partir de différentes normes sociales se rapportant au cas spécifique. Les autorités peuvent être considérées comme représentant un paradigme (par lequel le projet lui-même ainsi que les décisions politiques prises à ce sujet sont mises en évidence), alors que de nombreux organismes environnementaux représentent traditionnellement un paradigme de l'environnement, qui met l'accent sur le risque de processus potentiellement nuisibles pour l'environnement. Ces différences peuvent aussi être considérées comme symptomatiques de l’intégration de certains aspects d'un paradigme de l'environnement dans la législation comme le Code suédois de l'environnement.

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Introduction and aim

1The process underlying the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for large developments is often designed to allow for members of the public and NGOs to voice their opinions. The term Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is used to describe the recording and analysis of the expected environmental effects of a planned action or activity that according to law must be presented upon application for approval. The EIA system has been mainly developed to ensure that sufficient environmental consideration is given and that those affected by decisions regarding the establishment of industrial facilities have been allowed to take part in and affect the process (Wood, 2003). In Sweden, the issue of being self-sufficient regarding nuclear waste storage is a topic in which many stakeholders - such as the state, industry, municipalities and the general public - have an interest. This was an issue from the 1980s right up until the final decision was made in 2009 (The Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company, SKB, finally selecting the Forsmark area for nuclear waste storage). Up until then, there thus existed no accepted procedure for interpreting the existing legislation, however, the choice has not to date been corroborated by government decision. From an international perspective Sweden is also considered to be at the forefront in developing proposals regarding storage; thus there are few international examples to learn from. In many countries where electricity is produced by nuclear power, efforts are made to find solutions to the problem of long-term storage of nuclear waste. For instance, based on technical screening the US decided to deposit spent fuel in the Nevada desert. Recently these plans have been abandoned, partly as a result of strong local and regional opposition to the project. In Europe the EU has put pressure on the member states to present sites for long-term storage of their nuclear waste. Finland has gone far in this process and has already chosen the site and storage methods. Contrastingly, this is not the case in Germany where the process of siting a repository (Gorleben) has been heavily criticised by different groups in society. Today it is unclear how this problem should be resolved. In France the repository for spent fuel is intended to be in operation in 2017. At the moment the radioactive waste facility is planned for construction in Bure, situated in the Meuse district (SKB, 2012).

2This study describes the formal decision process regarding the final storage of nuclear waste and the roles of different actors in the process, as well as the consultation process - aimed at including actors outside the formal decision-making process - through a lens of how it is interpreted as a social normative process. The actors – according to the EIA procedure – involved in the final storage of nuclear waste are in the forefront of the investigation. In the study we have focused on the following aspects of the EIA process:

How do authorities as well as organisations beyond groups within the formal decision-making mandate (NGOs) perceive of their participation and influence in the EIA process on nuclear waste storage?

3While it should be possible for a deciding authority to reject an EIA on the basis of non-involvement of the public or NGOs, this study illustrates the way in which the EIA process may be formed by different social norms that relate to the specific case. The study is in particular focused on the process of consultation and perceived quality of this process; the study does thus not target the wider reasoning of different actors that may relate to their motivations for participating (e.g. expected benefits from the development).

Theoretical framework and case background

4Decision-making processes today include not only the formal decisions made by the state, elected politicians or governmental authorities on different levels – which have traditionally played a major role in legislation – but also the general public and other stakeholders. The possibility of the individual influencing the course of events has been an important building block in developing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for potentially environmentally harmful enterprises. The process underlying the EIA includes opportunities for concerned members of the public and NGOs to voice their opinions, and it should be possible for a deciding authority on the state or municipal level to reject an EIA on the basis of non-involvement of the public or NGOs (Blake, 1999).

5As an EIA is required when an enterprise may involve environmental risks, risk communication becomes an essential part of the relationship between different stakeholders in the process. The background to the development of EIA abroad and in Sweden has been the strong development of an environmental perspective in community planning, especially during the 1960s. In the literature, the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act, USA) is often mentioned as the starting point of a more thorough environmental policy. From a European perspective, EIA was introduced in 1985 through Directive 85/337/EG, providing for the analysis of the expected environmental effects of a planned action or activity.

6In Sweden, EIA was introduced comparatively late through the establishment of the Environmental Code (1998:808), something that has sometimes been seen as the Swedish legal framework already including the spirit of EIA, thus eliminating the need for change (Carlman, 1995). The Environmental Code has been in effect since the first of January 1999, with modifications made in 2005. Thus a formal EIA process has been required since 1999, even if actual assessments regarding siting of nuclear waste storage in Sweden had been ongoing since the 1980s. The Environmental Code entailed a sharpening and an expansion of previous requirements concerning EIA and an adaptation of Directive 85/337/EG on the assessment of the effect on the environment of certain public and private projects (changed through Directives 97/11/EG and 2003/35/EG).

  • 1 If a placement or storage facility is agreed on, sectoral authorities as well as the environmental (...)

7Different from many other countries, where EIA is performed by the state, in Sweden the enterprise wishing to establish the activity at hand is obliged to perform EIA. The Code provides both general rules of consideration and requirements for the EIA and consultation processes, which are then considered for review by, for large-scale processes such as that reviewed here, first, the environmental court(s) relevant to the region, and finally the state. Among other things, decisions should be based on whether the proposed development, here nuclear waste storage, utilises best available technology (BAT), and whether the EIA has described and evaluated alternatives to the development. Beyond the Code, some legislation particular to radiation issues also applies, as discussed in the results section.1 The role of public participation is mandated in particular in requirements that EIAs are made publicly available and that consultation with the public (for instance through open meetings) is undertaken. According to Chapter 6 of the Environment Code, Paragraphs 12-13 regarding possible appeal of a decision, judgments and decisions can be appealed by the party the judgment refers to if they are not in his or her favour, including environmental organisations that have existed for a minimum of three years and have a minimum of 2,000 members, and also people who live nearby.

8This means that the development of EIA has, in Sweden, largely complied with international EIA norms, however, it has also meant that due to its relatively recent development the process and expectations in EIA may come to overlay those of previously existing processes and assumptions (cf. Emmelin & Lerman 2006). This may, in particular, be the case for a long-term process such as that of nuclear waste storage, where discussions on siting have been ongoing since well before the establishment of EIA. This makes the concept of norms relevant. Norms are generally defined as socially shared expectations or standards of behaviour for actors with a specific identity (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). Much norms literature has, similar to this case, concerned the international level and international level norms, with some of these cases concerning how norms that originate outside the national context are enforced on domestic level or in specific cases (see Keskitalo et al. 2009). Studies have here indicated that wider (in this case international) norms may thus be limited in how they are applied by the specific values in the local case (Keskitalo et al. 2009). This is because norms can be seen as being made relevant by different actors in the context of culture and rhetoric in a sector, the existence of different institutions and interests, and socialising forces (such as the way in which a norm is phrased) (e.g. Cotell and Davis 2000, Gurowitz 1999). Which norms are actually socialised or institutionalised in a specific situation may depend on the specific setting in the actual case. For instance, literature has shown that large value rifts may exist in different sectors, between industry and environmental interests – for instance, in the resource sector of forestry in Sweden and Finland (e.g. Rantala and Primmer 2003,Tikkanen et al. 2003, Keskitalo et al. 2009).

9In Sweden similar value differences within not only forestry but also planning, have been identified in that the EIA procedure in Sweden has been criticised for not being able to manage to reconcile what have been called the plan paradigm and the environment paradigm (Emmelin & Lerman 2006). While both of these can be seen as including features highlighted in EIA, the plan paradigm rests mainly on a focus on the political process and is in that way more reminiscent of a focus on interest groups or regular politics (although potentially extended in the paradigm), while the environment paradigm also emphasises, in particular, non-represented values such as the environment.

10The plan paradigm can be seen as resting on the idea that planning should consider different interested parties in decisions on how land and water should best be used (cf. Spyke 1999). Allowing different parties to express their opinions within the framework of a recognised procedure creates conditions for broad participation and public scrutiny of the arguments. Finally, it is the task of a representative democracy to ultimately weigh different special interests against the public interest through decision-making within various political bodies, to avoid special interest participation skewing the decision-making (Van de Kerkhof & Wieczorek, 2003). The plan paradigm also includes a focus on the choices that are possible, based on different laws and ordinances.

11If the plan paradigm is characterised by a communicative or deliberative planning ideology, the environment paradigm is characterised by a scientific outlook. This paradigm embraces the idea that it is possible to arrive at the right decision by allowing experts (e.g., researchers or specialists) who are considered neutral to figure out which solution is the best. The environment paradigm also contains an idea of nature as having an intrinsic value, implying that decisions must be made with great consideration for the literal capacity of nature and ecological systems. Additionally, this paradigm includes a focus on the Precautionary Principle (Emmelin & Lerman 2006), which may, through focusing on natural conditions and the importance of preservation (dissuasion of development) rather than persuasive development focused practices, have a conservation effect on community development (Westerlund 2003). In this view, planning must thus also be able to ward off the rise of a management culture within both public administration and the private sector in which consideration for the environment would be systematically subordinated to economic interests (Sager 2001). One of the EIA system’s most important functions, therefore, is to highlight the importance of actors realising the potential environmental consequences of their planned projects, and thereby potentially reconciling paradigms.

12The plan and environment planning paradigms have also been seen as differing on a geographical scale. A fundamental question in all planning concerns the degree to which a decision is best made locally or nationally (or even supranationally). Is it the people who live and work in a municipality who can best judge which project should be allowed, or is it the decision-makers who represent the state or the EU who are best able to handle this assignment? On the one hand, it can be argued that a local population should have a great deal of influence on decisions that they themselves primarily feel the consequences of. This perception is thus reflective of the ongoing change in the party political system of declining voter turnout and involvement in formal politics, potentially in favour of local or other forms of engagement, as well as in the increasing role of NGOs in public life (Olsson et al., 2005; Amnå 2006). On the other hand, it is not self-evident that decision-makers at the local level will have a comprehensive view regarding a problem area. This is partly because they do not have the resources to generate exhaustive support documents for their decisions, but also partly because they choose to focus on the needs of their region. A communicative planning ideology is based on all interested parties having the opportunity to have their say, which is easier when there are only short distances to the fora where discussions are held. The local arena thus has the right size for this planning philosophy (Emmelin & Lerman 2006).

13To some extent these kinds of perceptions may relate to what sort of risks are perceived or placed in focus depending on, amongst other things, different values. The nuclear waste management in Sweden has been studied to quite an extensive degree (e.g. Sjöberg, 2000, 2004, 2009; Sjöberg and Drottz-Sjöberg, 2001). Findings in this body of research show, for example, that risk attitudes related to local nuclear waste repositories were, foremost, strongly related to the perception of risk rather than to the way in which studies indicated that the local community would be impacted (Sjöberg and Sjöberg-Drottz, 2001), and that such policy attitudes were related to more general attitudes to nuclear power, attributes of the perceived risks of nuclear waste management, and also to issues of trust (Sjöberg, 2004; 2009). The degree of legitimacy in the decision process underlying the local siting of radioactive waste storage can thus also influence people’s risk perceptions associated with the final storage, how they will react to or accept different suggestions or decisions, and finally their view of the process of participation and of their own role in this process (cf. Klinke and Rehn, 2002; Slovic 2010; Slovic 2000; Slovic 1987).

Case study context and method: The siting process of the repository and the regional setting

14In Sweden, the planned spent fuel repository is one part of the system handling nuclear waste. In the existing system there are ten nuclear reactors at three sites (Ringhals located on the west coast, 60 kilometres south of Gothenburg; Oskarshamn located on the east coast, 300 kilometres south of Stockholm in Kalmar County; and Forsmark located in the municipality of Östhammar situated in northern Roslagen in Uppsala County, 150 kilometres north of Stockholm). While waiting for the spent fuel repository to be built, used nuclear fuel produced in the reactors is stored in an interim facility (Clab) situated in Oskarshamn. Short-lived radioactive waste produced in different types of manufacturing industries, hospitals etc. is stored in a final repository (SFR) drilled into the bedrock close to the Forsmark power plant. In addition, there is a transportation system consisting of e.g. a means of transport carrying nuclear waste between power plants and the different repositories.

15Since the mid-1980s investigations and discussions regarding where to build the spent fuel repository have been going on. SKB has been engaged in conversations with different municipalities and stakeholders on this issue. The screening process of possible sites may be characterised by a bottom-up perspective. Based on international experiences there was, early on, an understanding of the need to avoid technical screening as the main driver of the location process. Scientists and experts produce useful knowledge about, for example, geological and hydrological aspects, but the success of a location process is ultimately dependent on the opinions of the local populations. This is particularly so in the case of countries with strong traditions of local government. In eight municipalities across the country pilot studies have been carried out investigating various technical, safety and societal aspects of the repository. As a result of local referenda some municipalities declined further enquiries, and some of the municipalities were disqualified due to unsuitable bedrock. Site investigations have been carried out in Oskarshamn and Östhammar. As a result of these investigations, in 2011 SKB submitted applications for a permit to build the spent fuel repository in Söderviken (Östhammar) close to the Forsmark nuclear power plant.

Figure 1: Overview timeline of the process for selection of potential spent fuel repository, including early assessment projects and interim storage solutions

Figure 1: Overview timeline of the process for selection of potential spent fuel repository, including early assessment projects and interim storage solutions

16Both Östhammar and Oskarshamn are relatively sparsely populated. The population of Östhammar totals 21,387 and the corresponding figure in Oskarshamn is 26,166 (Statistics Sweden, 2011). Even though the population numbers are similar, the regional situations of the municipalities are very different. The population of Oskarshamn is, to a large extent, concentrated in the city of Oskarshamn and most of the adjacent municipalities are very small, which means that Oskarshamn is, in terms of population numbers, on the periphery of Sweden. Östhammar, instead, is located at the edge of the growing Stockholm metropolitan region. Continued urbanisation propelled by industrial dynamism, where new economic activities tend to occur and flourish in regional settings characterised by diversification and urbanisation economies, makes the urban areas expand further away from the city centres. This implies that Östhammar is gradually integrating functionally with the Stockholm metropolitan region. Investments in infrastructure facilitate expanding labour markets, which makes it possible to live and work in different parts of the metropolitan region.

Figure 2: Overview map situating the case study locations

Figure 2: Overview map situating the case study locations
  • 2 Given the potential international relevance of the issue of storing nuclear fuel, the state Environ (...)

17In the case of nuclear waste storage in Sweden, the particular company responsible for undertaking the EIA is the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB).2 State authorities relevant to the process at the time of the study were the National Radiation Safety Authority (SSI) and the National Nuclear Power Inspectorate (SKI), which have since merged into a single body responsible for nuclear power and radiation issues. Regional levels in the two different regions that were assessed for storage sites are the county administrative boards (the regional arm of the state). The relevant local municipalities for which storage possibilities were assessed – Östhammar and Oskarshamn – have, under Swedish law, great self-governing rights, especially as regards planning, and could veto the development of nuclear storage within the municipality. Other relevant actors include, in particular, local environmental NGOs, as, according to Chapter 6 of the Environment Code, judgments and decisions can be appealed by the party the judgment refers to if they are not in his or her favour, including environmental organisations that have existed for a minimum of three years and have a minimum of 2,000 members, and also people who live nearby. As a result of requirements for consultation on the EIA development under the Environmental Code, formal consultation procedures were undertaken between 2001 and 2007. These included SKB consultation with the municipalities and county administrative boards, local consultation and open meetings where, e.g., NGOs could attend. According to legislation, minutes from meetings are publicly available.

  • 3 While each interviewee cannot entirely represent the organisation’s view, care has been taken in bo (...)

18This study is based on a two-pronged semi-structured interview study with a somewhat different thematic focus and selection in the different steps, undertaken mainly in 2008 during the EIA process. The first step of the interview study examined how different participants at formal authorities that were involved in the EIA due to their legislative or expert role experienced existing legislation as well as the EIA and approval processes. In total 14 interviews were held with representatives of municipalities (politicians as well as employees with knowledge of judicial matters and the issue of nuclear waste) in Östhammar and Oskarshamn; county administrative boards in Uppsala and Kalmar; and the different Swedish authorities with specific roles in the process: the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB), the National Radiation Safety Authority (SSI), the National Nuclear Power Inspectorate (SKI), the Swedish National Council for Nuclear Waste (previously KASAM), regional environmental courts and the Ministry of the Environment. These interviews concerned each organisation’s own role in the processes, and interviewees are referred to by organisation in the results section.3 The second interview study targeted consultation during the EIA process, that is, both the parties that were included through formal requirements and those who were included as a result of the self-selection that EIA requirements allow for. Within this, a total of 20 interviews were held with organisations that participated in consultations. The interview subjects represented both authorities and independent organisations active on national, regional and local levels; the selection of formal authorities largely overlapped with the one above but with interviews targeting consultation, while the selection of NGOs added entirely new interview groups. These interviews regarded the question of how interviewees had perceived the consultations and were thus more focused on context; interviewees are, due to the sensitive nature, only referred to in the results section as NGOs or authorities (the latter category including all organisations besides NGOs). Non-NGOs comprised SKI, SSI, KASAM, county administrative boards in Uppsala and Kalmar as well as the regional association for Kalmar; Östhammar, Oskarshamn and Hultsfred municipalities. NGOs comprised national level organisations (Miljörörelsens kärnavfallssekretariat, Miljöorganisationernas kärnavfallsgranskning, Folkkampanjen mot kärnkraft-kärnvapen, Miljövänner för kärnkraft, and Sveriges energiföreningars riksorganisation), regional (Naturskyddsföreningen i Uppsala län) and local levels (Opinionsgruppen för säker slutförvaring, Döderhults naturskyddsförening, Östhammars Naturskyddsförening, and Energi för Östhammar). The selection of these groups was based on their participation in consultations on the development, as evident in minutes from EIA consultations between 2001-2007. This supplementary and selection material including all minutes from EIA consultations from the period 2001 to 2007 is referred to in the results with reference to the minutes only where it provides information on the themes that is not already accessible through interviews.

19Interviews were in general recorded and transcribed verbatim to allow for qualitative analysis and correct quotation. The interview material and consultation minutes were coded to account for involvement of different groups in the EIA, inclusion of perspectives through consultation, and goals and types of issues targeted for consultation as well as potential differences in risk perceptions. All quotations have been translated from the original Swedish to English by the authors.


20The interview results illustrate that in the process of developing the EIA, the groups that interact have primarily been the formal bodies: the SKB, the municipalities (after early periods in the process of choosing the location), the authorities (SSI and SKI) and the county administrative boards – that is, those groups with a defined position according to law. Other groups (such as the government) that enter the decision process only when the EIA has been submitted, have an influence through the SKB FUD Research and Development (R&D) programme as well as through an information acquirement position. The state is considered to have a relatively strong role through other related processes, which has an effect during the EIA stage (even though the government does not become a formal actor until the review stage when the final decision is to be made). During the entire process the government has placed requirements on SKB to present an R&D report every three years, which is considered to give the government the opportunity to check the safety research and development. The government has also given the involved municipalities, county administrative boards and authorities, as well as NGOs, the opportunity to receive funding to follow the nuclear waste process, in order to allow for good transparency and to secure a democratic process, as the Ministry of the Environment sees it. The government also funds the Swedish National Council for Nuclear Waste (previously KASAM), which among other things conducts public seminars, thereby lending a certain transparency to the process.

21The issue of control over time in a decision process that has gone on for such a long time period is thus also touched upon. In the study on the decision process, a representative of SKB comments on the dynamic over time: the time period during which the location selection process has gone on – much longer than is feasible for most other societal issues:

Most of the larger issues in society have started to be more complex...The industry issues of the 60s and 70s, those were technical issues...a very technocratic it’s...political aspects. It’s environmental aspects...ethical... Now there are completely different requirements and completely different laws, and decision processes are significantly more complicated (SKB, interview).

22In comparison, participation, both on a national and regional level, has been considered to have had a low profile (SSI, interview). According to the current Environmental Code, the county administrative board should work to give the EIA the objective and scope necessary for the review, as well as compile the supporting documentation – including the planning documentation – that is significant in relation to the review and that can be found at the state authorities. This formal role was not as clear, however, before the changes to the Environmental Code in 2005 (through which SSI considers the role to have been clarified). The county administrative board’s role in helping the EIA to have the objective and scope necessary for review may have been difficult to play in this case, however, as SKB is considered to have been a strong party that limited the need for the county administrative board’s coordinated contribution. The local level (primarily the municipalities) has instead been prominent. One municipality, however, expresses that the county administrative board’s role in relation to that of the municipalities could be strengthened:

I’ve gotten the impression that the municipalities have wanted to be a stronger co-participant in relation to SKB (Oskarshamn municipality, interview).

23Similarly, other actors voiced concerns on the context in which the development took place, in particular from the beginning:

The nuclear waste family is small, and everyone knows everyone...there can be a certain danger in this as well. The danger is that you don’t question what you arrive at (Authority, interview).

24On this basis, the consultation process included in EIA was seen as allowing for the participation of a wider range of groups – but on the basis of an already established grouping. The participants stress that the long time period of the process, which they assembled themselves at the start and which was based on relatively general legal requirements, has had an effect on the consultation as well:

It was a definite breaking point, if you can call it that, when Chapter 6 [of the Environmental Code] called for a formal application for early consultation. We had actually been conducting consultation long, long before this, as the EIA forum in Oskarshamn had already started in 1994. It was thus a consultation process that began. But then it wasn’t formally regulated, actually...It was a consultation more in the form of a discussion and knowledge exchange – knowledge building – around these questions...when SKB in 2002 turned in their application for early consultation, this work had already been going on for eight years with pretty much the same parties involved. So it wasn’t the clear kick-off it perhaps should have been. (County administrative board, interview)

25Some express that what had developed informally before the Environmental Code came to correspond relatively well with what was later described in the Code (SSI, SKB, interviews). The differences today are that the role of distribution and requirements are clearer because they are described in legislation (SKB) and that more parties are allowed to participate in the consultations with the municipality.

26However, the participation of environmental organisations is seen by many as a change in the consultations and the EIA process, concerning both structure and tone. The question of how the environmental organisations’ participation has affected the consultations is raised by many NGOs as well as non-NGOs. The relatively general legislation before the changes to the Environmental Code – which came to be integrated into an already developed framework for coordination between organisations for final storage – can thus have further contributed to differences in interpretation between different parties (especially those included according to law and those that came later, i.e. primarily environmental organisations).

27A problem that became evident, however, was that the NGOs participating in the process did not always find that the formal actors were able to communicate either the technical choices or the risks clearly enough for NGOs. Concerns about radioactive waste storage per se can be noted, as well as different opinions on how people’s reactions to this storage have been treated. Among the participating NGOs there were different statements regarding concerns about the discussions about final storage, such as their concerns were discarded as being exaggerated or feelings of being seen as ignorant of the EIA process. NGOs primarily described the goals for their participation by the fact that an NGO’s task is to be a critical reviewer. Representatives of groups with the fundamental goal of hindering the production of nuclear fuel noted that the question should be seen as one of environmental safety and of values rather than of an industrial practical establishment, and should focus on the Precautionary Principle. Some pointed at the negative reaction experienced by participating NGOs from formal actors, as well as the perceived large differences between residents and organised interests. For instance:

I think that they [SKB] have not been sufficiently humble when critical questions or criticism have been put forward You could be a little humble maybe we are wrong or we can look into it, something like that. It is more like they are defensive and saying, no, no, no, we are right, this is good (NGO, interview).

Discussions are stifled... and if one of the environmentalists says something... their tone becomes almost angry, and if someone from the general public says anything critical, they become condescending (NGO, interview).

28The question of who has the power to control the EIA process is thus brought up by a number of parties (both NGOs and others), and refers to both formal and informal power. The question of how discussion at consultation meetings should be organised as well as how long presentations should take, as well as regards participants and inclusion in consultations, were recurring points that led to changes in the organisation of the consultation (protocols). Parties within both NGOs and other organisations express that it is SKB, with its great number of resources and skills, which sets the agenda for the creation of supporting documents that decisions will be based on, although the final decision is made by another party. Some commented, however, that even a smaller group like an environmental organisation can exercise power in the process, as the general public trusts these organisations, and they thus receive a role that allows [even a] small have a great amount of say (NGO, interview).

29Representativeness, in relation to the possibility of having an influence, is thus also an issue: Like many participatory democracy processes, organised interests have had a greater role than the unorganised general public. For instance:

The nearby residents have totally different questions, the ones who live close to the actual place where the waste will be stored.’s questions about noise and dust and things like that, while ... from a national perspective it is about whether or not we should have nuclear power and radioactive waste at all, a totally different perspective then. (Municipality, interview)

Discussion and conclusions: EIA as legislation and a social process

30As mentioned in the introduction, the process of finding a location for the nuclear waste storage has not yet come to an end. In 2009 SKB decided to locate the storage in Forsmark (Östhammar municipality), but this choice has not yet been corroborated by government decision. In 2011, two years after SKB opted for Forsmark, they submitted an application to receive needed permits for the storage in accordance with the Swedish Act on Nuclear Activities. The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority is presently reviewing the application and their work is supported by international experts from OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency. When this work is finalized the authority will make a recommendation to the Swedish government for an ultimate decision on this matter.

31While development is thus still ongoing, the studies illustrate among other things, that the process of EIA and consultation is based on accepted procedure that has been developed among the parties that have participated in the location selection process since the early 1990s. Structures for consultation have thus been developed even since before the introduction of the formal consultation process. Many of the environmental organisations also feel that they have entered a process in which the consultation structure has already been developed, which some of them also note has partly curtailed their chances of having an influence. The expansion of participation through the Environmental Code has, however, allowed the environmental organisations to gain access in another way than they had through their traditional opposition role as an independent party outside the establishment.

32In addition to this, the environmental organisations and established parties have had greatly differing perspectives on EIA and the role of the consultation. In particular, the established parties – including, to a certain degree, authorities – can be considered to represent a plan paradigm (by which, among other things, the project itself as well as political decisions made about it are in focus), whereas many environmental organisations traditionally represent an environment paradigm, focusing on the Precautionary Principle regarding potentially ecologically harmful processes. Many of the comments by authorities can be considered to be based on a plan paradigm by which consultation is seen as being focused on a specific project or facility. Many of the environmental organisations, with a certain degree of variation (just as a degree of variation can be noted in the comments among non-NGOs above), instead describe a relationship to what has previously been described as an environment paradigm, or a specific type of norm that has been institutionalised in legislation only through the Environmental Code e.g. with EIA. Within this paradigm, legitimacy is associated with standing outside the process and with a broader range of questioning (Emmelin & Lerman 2006). NGOs with a national outlook focused on the long-term risks of final storage. These differences have characterised much of the consultation process, and can also be seen as symptomatic of the inclusion of parts of an environment paradigm in legislation like the Environmental Code.

33The interviews also indicate differences between, for example, those living in the immediate area and the local environmental organisations, and the nationally oriented NGOs, in terms also of how scale may influence concerns. Those locally rooted speak more often of risks associated with consequences to their area from a short-term perspective – focusing on the day-to-day consequences of the nuclear waste deposit sites – whereas the NGOs with a national agenda are more inclined to focus on long-term risks and the consequences’ far-reaching impact on the environment and future generations. This is a similar differentiation as with regards to assumptions in plan and environmental paradigms as above. With a local focus, the perceived risks were related to the impact (positive and negative) on the community, which is in line with earlier research (Sjöberg and Sjöberg-Drottz, 2001). This indicates that risk management in a more general sense, taking into account the national and transnational perspective, must manage the broad range of risk perception, including effects on future generations and the environment, as has traditionally been seen in risk perception research among the general public.

34The role EIA should have may therefore depend greatly on the relation to a professional and management culture, something that affects the view on the application of EIA (a plan or an environment paradigm) (cf. Keskitalo et al. 2009). An environment paradigm, to a certain degree personified in environmental organisations, often considers long-term perspectives on the issue of nuclear fuel in general as relevant, and stresses the Precautionary Principle and the external expert analysis of different alternative methods like the relevant assessment principle for EIA. The process of nuclear waste storage has combined a communicative planning ideology with a focus on the local level – where many of the interactions have taken place – together with a focus on scientific expertise; with different groups, however, stressing different types of expertise and assessment of the risks of nuclear waste. Great differences thus exist between different parties regarding which environmental consequences should be heeded and how they should be assessed, and thereby to what extent EIA norms rather than pre-existing norms guide the development. There are also internal differences within groups, with people at both NGOs and various authorities having a different understanding of how the assessment of alternatives, risks, the Precautionary Principle and best knowledge should take place. While the focus of the description of environmental consequences is based on legislation there is also room for interpretation, for example regarding the design of alternative methods and overall questions like the application of the Precautionary Principle and best knowledge concerning methods and alternative methods. This perspective adds to the contributions of previous studies on consultation within SKB (Soneryd & Lidskog, 2006).

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1 If a placement or storage facility is agreed on, sectoral authorities as well as the environmental court can then place certain conditions on it, as a result of it falling under both these laws and the Code.

2 Given the potential international relevance of the issue of storing nuclear fuel, the state Environmental Protection Agency, rather than SKB, has additionally been responsible for international consultation on the development in accordance with the Espoo Convention on transnational EIA. However, the focus in this paper will be particularly on the national consultation process.

3 While each interviewee cannot entirely represent the organisation’s view, care has been taken in both interview studies to select persons who have been involved in the processes and can describe these and the organisation’s involvement and role in them.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: Overview timeline of the process for selection of potential spent fuel repository, including early assessment projects and interim storage solutions
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Titre Figure 2: Overview map situating the case study locations
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E. Carina H. Keskitalo, Annika Nordlund et Urban Lindgren, « Environmental Impact Assessment as a social process: The case of nuclear waste storage in Sweden », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Aménagement, Urbanisme, document 715, mis en ligne le 10 mars 2015, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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E. Carina H. Keskitalo

Department of Geography and Economic History, Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden
Contact information (corresponding author): Tel +46-90-786 50 80.

Annika Nordlund

Department of Psychology, Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden

Urban Lindgren

Department of Geography and Economic History, Umeå University, 901 87 Umeå, Sweden.

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