Taking Risk Seriously: Discourses and Worldviews in a Nuclear Waste Controversy

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Waldman, Suzanne Maureen




Policy controversies over technologies with uncertain risks are highly polarizing. Stakeholder and public discussions about such ‘risky technologies’ typically divide over policy frames grounded in different underlying narratives concerning the relational dynamics among humans, technologies, and the environment that warrant distinct approaches for understanding and managing risk. The dissertation presents an approach to depolarizing risk that involves surfacing cultural narratives and finding discursive and institutional means to bridge them. Through an interpretive policy analysis, this dissertation examines the discourse of two key policy actors in the controversy over Ontario Power Generation's (OPG's) proposed deep geological repository (DGR) for low and intermediate level nuclear waste sited near Lake Huron. Specifically, it examines how the regulator (OPG) and a community action group, Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump (STGLND), engaged in a framing struggle about the DGR and its putative environmental effects. It shows that key elements of OPG's discursive frame were anchored to a cultural narrative describing the ability of rock to protect ecologies and humans from nuclear waste. The same elements of STGLND's discursive frame anchored emphasized the vulnerability of water to contamination from nuclear waste. The dissertation argues that these competing narratives align with longstanding socio-technological worldviews.

The dissertation also discovers the presence of an intertext—a backdrop of discursive common ground—for the policy controversy amid statements by geologists describing DGRs as a promising technology that, due to environmental risks involved, requires more exhaustive and publicly accountable study. The “Responsible Geologist” intertext, it argues, has potential to act as a neutral policy frame for depolarizing public and stakeholder dialogue about DGRs. Finally, the dissertation describes how polarized dialogues around technological and environmental risk issues could be alleviated through the creation of distinctly collaborative environmental impact assessment and risk assessment procedures. Such processes would engage citizens from different socio-cultural worldviews in a deliberative mode that is at once synthetic of diversity and evidence-based while being simultaneously committed to both ethics and innovation.


Public Administration
Sociology - Theory and Methods




Carleton University

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Theses and Dissertations

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