Collaboration by Deflection: Coping with Spent Nuclear Fuel

Published date01 March 2012
Date01 March 2012
Joseph J. Karlesky is The Honorable
and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of
Government at Franklin and Marshall
College. He received his doctorate in
public law and government from Columbia
University. He is coauthor of The State of
Academic Science: The Universities
in the Nation’s Research Effort and
coauthor of three editions of the textbook
American Government. His teaching
and research focus on public policy, particu-
larly the interrelationships between public
policy and science and technology and the
consequences of these interrelationships for
policies in energy and health. He regularly
teaches courses in American government,
understanding public policy, public policy
implementation, and health policy.
196 Public Administration Review • March | April 2012
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 72, Iss. 2, pp. 196–205. © 2011 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.111/j.1540-6210.2011.02493.x.
Joseph J. Karlesky
Franklin and Marshall College
For more than three decades, the U.S. national
government has wrestled with the problem of siting a
central repository for high-level radioactive waste, most
of it spent fuel from nuclear power plants. Scholars
and practitioners recommend a collaborative and
participative approach to the siting process to ensure
accountability and representativeness, but the search
for a working repository so far has been unsuccessful.
Consequently, more nuclear power plants must add or
expand dry cask facilities to store accumulating amounts
of spent fuel. Are collaboration and accountability and
successful execution of results possible in state decisions
on dry cask storage in a way that they have eluded
the central siting process?  e special characteristics of
dispersed dry cask storage, in contrast to transporting the
waste to a central repository, can facilitate collaboration
and accountability, as decisions on dry cask storage in
Minnesota and Vermont demonstrate.
Can the governing principles of a collabora-
tive, participatory, civic environmentalism
be applied to the enduring political problem
of spent nuclear fuel, an unwelcome consequence
of authoritarian decision-making structures in the
infancy of atomic power? At a time of intensifying
debate over energy and environmental policies, the
very high stakes in deciding what to do with spent
nuclear fuel place in sharp ref‌l ection the value con-
f‌l icts over decision-making structures that we confront
in governing.  e vexing and exhausting political
struggle over spent nuclear fuel places in especially
bold relief the contest between policy execution and
democratic accountability. Balancing the need to exer-
cise power and the need to keep its use accountable
is the central question in democratic policy making.
Producing energy through nuclear f‌i ssion is a techno-
logical marvel that at once ref‌l ects inventive ingenuity
and the durable political problem of deciding how to
proceed in making public policy decisions.
Civilian nuclear power can help the nation mitigate
global warming by reducing reliance on fossil fuels,
strengthen national security by bolstering energy
independence, and moderate rising energy prices
by increasing the diversity of energy sources. At the
same time, civilian nuclear energy burdens energy
users with very expensive capital facilities, threatens
national security by of‌f ering terrorists opportunities
to wreak radiological disasters, and jeopardizes the
environment by producing highly toxic waste that no
one wants. What good or goods in this debate do we
decide shall prevail, and how do we go about deciding
in the f‌i rst place? A modern technology enlightens an
old problem in the study of politics.
e study of how public policy decisions are made is at
the core of the study of politics and the central question
in classics in the discipline, from E. E. Schattschneider’s
propositions on the scope of conf‌l ict and its outcome
(1960, 2–5), to Hugh Heclo’s expansion of iron trian-
gles to issue networks (1978, 100–5), to Robert Dahl’s
exposition of trade-of‌f s in the concentration or disper-
sion of power (1982, 105–7), to Aaron Wildavsky’s
explication of system politics in struggles over partisan-
ship and policy (1966, 304–5). Students of politics
know that procedure shapes the substance of decisions,
an axiom that explains the intensity of political strug-
gles over who should decide given questions and the
decision rules they will follow.  e high stakes in the
political f‌i ght over spent nuclear fuel put in sharp focus
the decision structures that will determine what hap-
pens to high-level nuclear waste that is both physically
and politically radioactive. Practitioners and scholars
stress the importance of widespread participation and
collaboration among stakeholders in environmental de-
cision making to bolster the political legitimacy of f‌i nal
decisions.  e unique characteristics of spent nuclear
fuel allow such collaboration under some conditions
but have sharply resisted it under others, placing in an
unusual light the relationship between decision-making
structures and substantive decisions.
Renaissance and Reservation in Nuclear
Policy Debate
Nuclear power plants have been viewed alternately
as potentially valuable energy sources in a world of
Collaboration by Def‌l ection: Coping with Spent Nuclear Fuel

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