Reflections on the National Environmental Justice Conference in Washington, D.C.
By Kayla Beard
Environmental justice has become a buzzword and a shimmering pearl at the heart of the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to mitigating climate change. My introduction to environmental justice (EJ) began when I started working at Metropolitan Group. Though my passion for the environment was ignited more than a decade ago, I wasn’t aware that there was a term to describe the necessary work of demanding equity for communities that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental toxicity and the consequences of industrial growth and governmental negligence. I’ve since learned that for more than 40 years, a dedicated group of advocates has been building a movement that has finally gained federal support from the current administration.
In March of this year, I had the privilege to attend the National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program (NEJC). The NEJC is a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy for the past 16 years, bringing together EJ community leaders, academia, and members of the private sector with federal and state government representatives to examine EJ issues and share best practices.
Previous events drew anywhere from 400 to 500 participants. In 2023, more than 1,000 people from around the U.S. congregated at the convention center in D.C. to attend the conference; many showed up without having even registered, according to Vernice Miller-Travis, executive vice president at Metropolitan Group and NEJC Advisory Board member, signaling that there is exponential interest in environmental justice. Federal employees and affiliates, representatives from nonprofits, and even the president of the Shell oil company convened with a common intent to strive for better understanding of environmental justice and equity.
One of the most compelling sessions, to me, during the conference was also one of the least attended. The Department of Energy (DOE) held a workshop on its “consent-based siting” process for relocating and storing spent nuclear fuel rods. The consent-based siting approach involves engaging with members of a community before locating a nuclear waste management site where they live. The process is intended to be tailored to each community based on the unique needs and desires of community members — on the surface, a promising pivot that takes environmental justice principles into consideration.
Finland has used a consent-based siting process successfully, and served as a model for the process the U.S. will implement. Canada and the United Kingdom have also used a similar process to locate nuclear waste management sites. Still, the concept is relatively new.
Consent, in this case, is an interesting term: Consent from one individual would require a definitive verbal “yes” from that person to participate in the action in question. Obtaining consent from an entire community of people should require a measurable consensus, a feat that DOE doesn’t seem to have a clear plan to achieve. After participating in the session, I question the process and the federal approach to EJ in general.
Past nuclear waste storage practices have not included community input. This is especially troublesome since a substantial portion of spent nuclear fuel rods are buried in containment facilities on Tribal lands, which were established without the consultation or explicit consent of these Tribes.
Why nuclear energy is a topic worthy of discussion
Nuclear energy is considered, by DOE and other nongovernmental authorities, a “necessary” option in the transition to a clean-energy economy. As stated by Dr. Faith Dirol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, in this 2019 report, “Without action to provide more support for nuclear power, global efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly.”
Essentially, the potential low-emissions energy that can be generated by existing nuclear power plants could allow the U.S. and other nations to expedite the transition away from fossil fuels (i.e., oil, natural gas, coal) with a lower financial investment up front. Energy sources like wind and solar would require a more substantial investment to kickstart their use, compared with nuclear.
The subject remains controversial. Some argue that increased investment in nuclear energy would not be enough to address the climate crisis in a timely manner. Additionally, nuclear waste can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years. Current storage practices are the best we can do, but these practices remain imperfect. Many of the nuclear waste facilities currently in use were designed to be transitional, not permanent, storage, including the Savannah River containment facility in Savannah, Georgia.
Fear of the worst-case scenarios — natural disasters, mechanical failure, or human error — was a recurring theme during the workshop discussion, and those fears were not resolved. Much of the rhetoric in support of nuclear power as a clean energy source minimizes the potential environmental risks, or fails to acknowledge the risks at all.
Biden-Harris approach to EJ and climate mitigation
The Biden-Harris administration’s choice to implement a consent-based siting process, combined with the administration’s whole-of-government commitment to EJ, illustrates a clear intent to uphold EJ principles. Theoretically, no community would be “forced” to house a nuclear waste site.
One could argue, however, that increased investment in nuclear energy is in direct opposition to EJ principles due to the inherent environmental risks nuclear energy presents. Communities may have the opportunity to advocate against hosting a nuclear waste management site, but there is no clear plan for next steps if a willing host community cannot be found.
Community members with varying degrees of education about, interest in, and trust for the government should be provided with technical assistance so that there is mutual understanding. Additionally, members of a community must have a clear vision of what their collective future will look like, and all members of the community must be aligned with that vision. It goes without saying that this presents a major challenge.
The responsibility of DOE is to devote as many resources and as much time as is necessary to ensure that community members are able to make an informed decision about whether or not their hometown should host a nuclear waste management facility.
Where does the money go?
At the 2023 NEJC, federal employees from various departments touted the trillions of dollars allocated by the Biden-Harris administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act to address climate change and the transition to clean energy. Nearly everyone I conversed with expressed concerns about how that money would be spent.
DOE has already issued a $26 million Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) to provide resources for communities interested in learning more about consent-based siting, management of spent nuclear fuel, and interim storage facilities. Eligible awardees include: higher education institutions; Tribal, state, and local governments; community foundations; and nongovernmental organizations such as nonprofits.
History shows that when federal resources are allocated without a clearly defined strategy, local and state officials can manipulate the resources to flow to their preferred “shovel ready” vs. “shovel worthy” projects. A study, from Dr. Dorceta Taylor of Yale University, revealed that even grantmaking authorities within the EJ space have biases in their granting patterns, prioritizing certain communities and overlooking others. Therefore, delegating the funds from federal agencies into the hands of well-meaning organizations will not immediately guarantee equity.
When it comes to the implementation of a consent-based siting process, and the equitable allocation of infrastructure resources, effective communication between experts and community members could make the difference between success and overwhelming failure.
Most crucially, if Americans decide that nuclear waste should not be stored in the communities where we live and raise our children, DOE must have another plan to carry us away from our extreme dependence on fossil fuels whose effects on the atmosphere are intensifying the impacts of climate change, resulting in significant environmental and economic harm.
The Biden-Harris administration has taken an admirable stance in advocating for environmental justice, and the NEJC offered an opportunity for celebration, reflection, and critical discussion surrounding the administration’s goals. I am hopeful that the ongoing engagement of longtime EJ activists, like Miller-Travis at MG, with the help of new allies like myself, can steer the U.S. in the best direction, so long as this administration continues to listen.