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One small voice from inside the recent SA Nuclear Citizen's Jury

By Tony Webb - posted Friday, 18 November 2016


Two thirds of the recent South Australian Citizen's Jury opposed the idea that South Australia could import, store and dispose of around a third of the world's highly radioactive Nuclear wastes. Nuclear advocates have responded by suggesting bias in the jury. I'd like to share some of what happened inside the jury based on first hand experience rather than ill-informed opinions from outsiders.

Bias in the jury selection process?

First the claim the jury was 'biased'. Simply untrue. I was one of 25,000 people randomly selected via Austria Post listings who received an invitation to participate and was one of around 1200 who expressed interest. I was not chosen for the first 50 person jury in June but was one of the 350 selected to participate in the second jury in October.

Was I biased? I freely admit to being an active critic of the nuclear industry for over 40 years. I've worked on public and worker-education over risks from radiation exposures in the UK USA Canada and here. Not always popular with anti-nuclear advocates, I've also argued that the world needs to find a long term solution to the problem of nuclear wastes. I'd prefer this be done by international agreement as a global-citizen responsibility. I'm sceptical it can be done responsibly as a commercial venture or as a solution to South Australia's economic woes.

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Were others in the jury similarly inclined or approaching it from a predetermined position? Definitely not. The evidence from jurors' early postings on the 'Basecamp' discussion board, and questions in the jury sessions indicated that most if not all approached the task of reviewing the evidence with an open mind; facing up to the challenge of producing reasoned advice to government on whether, and if so under what conditions, to pursue the opportunity outlined in the report of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. Further evidence of open minds was seen when, at the end of the second weekend, we formed an 'opinion line' on our thinking a that stage in the process. A continuous line across the room showed, while some had firmed up their opinion at both ends, most were still undecided.

Reviewing the evidence

In reaching their conclusions jurors explored a range of critical thinking skills for questioning the written information and the statements from witnesses. We posted questions on a 'fact check' wall and could ask for 'fact checks' at any stage in the process.

Witness evidence was provided through two distinct processes. The first involved hearing from a balanced group of experts on different aspects of the issue. These were chosen by a Stakeholder Reference Group that included industry, government and community agencies with views across the opinion-spectrum. This opinion-balanced group of witnesses were rotated through a 'speed-evidence' process where jurors heard from these witnesses in small groups – so everyone had a chance to ask questions. The second process was designed to allow the jurors to hear from witnesses of their choice to fill the gaps in the evidence and ask questions they wanted further information on. The process of selecting these additional witnesses for the Jury's second weekend began with a list of people (and details of their expertise) put together by the stakeholder reference group. The jurors then completed 'information gap cards' identifying: areas they felt needed further information, witnesses they thought might fill these gaps and whether these were included on the initial list. We were then invited to add names of any additional witnesses and the whole list of over 200 was posted on a 'Witness Wall'.

Selection of those the jury wished to hear was then undertaken by all 350 jurors placing five dots against the names of those they most wished to hear from with the understanding that the top five in each of six areas of concern would be invited to give evidence and be questioned at the next jury session three weeks away.

Was this biased? As a process to this stage clearly not. If the selection favoured any witnesses this was the jurors' choice based on information we felt was needed for the next stage of deliberation. However, concern was raised when the Democracy Co facilitators running the process immediately asked that they be allowed to add additional witness to achieve "balance" in the list to be invited. This resulted in something close to uproar. The jury had been told – no ifs or buts - that we would be selecting the witnesses we wanted to hear from. Not the facilitators. Not the Government. 'Balancing' of witness evidence had already occurred. The 'dot-mocracy' process showed we wanted witnesses to assist with critical evaluation of the evidence already provided – particularly that the project would be financially viable, could be done safely, and that there was a genuine process for exploring public consent.

Honouring the jury and the process?

Despite this, 48 hours later, facilitators advised the jurors that they had included additional witnesses with views heavily biased towards the pro dump case. These additional witnesses were to be invited ahead of about twenty others in their field who had received higher dot 'votes'. The initial justification in one case was that over 20 of the 'info gap cards', filled out before the selection process, asked for this witness. I made several requests and was eventually allowed to view the evidence and found was not true. The facilitators then changed the justification saying it was now based on comments on the fact check wall.

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Details of 'fact check' and 'info gap' data was only made available to the jury on the morning of the next session. The selection process was however discussed at the Stakeholder Reference Group a week earlier and five members of the group insisted the jury be advised of: "concerns that the view of the jury was not honoured in the way additional witnesses were added by Democracy Co" . This statement was buried in a posting to the Basecamp board at 9.30 pm the day before the next jury session. Facilitators made no public announcement to the jury and shut down attempts to raise it from the jury floor.

Whatever the merits of arguments for 'balance', facilitators chose not to consult the jurors, make their case, and share the evidence they believed justified this change in the process. If they had, agreement could easily have been achieved in the three-week gap between the jury sessions. Instead, they concealed the concerns that this process was not being handled with openness and integrity, essential for trust in the jury process.

Answering the core question – should this project go ahead?

Unfortunately, the problems did not stop there. Jurors experienced a range of manoeuvers seemingly designed to fragment and dilute their growing concerns. Discussions were restricted to small groups focussed on specific aspects of the proposal. There were attempts to undermine the near unanimous voice of the Aboriginal community. There were ongoing arguments over the form of the core question, particularly how this had been framed in terms of three (traffic light) options. Yes – go ahead (green). Yes - go ahead under conditions (amber). No – don't go ahead (red). There was ongoing dispute over whether the question be about whether the project 'could' go ahead (anything can be done given enough time and money) or whether it 'should' – under the circumstances proposed.

In the event two thirds of jurors said unambiguously the proposed project should not proceed 'under any circumstances'. The Premier responded saying the government would consider this as PART of the public consent process. The jury's critical evaluation of the evidence was set against community responses to a wholly one-sided presentation of the case for the dump. Fortunately, 50 - 60% of these responses also said no. The government has also had a 35,000-person petition saying no. The state opposition, other political parties, and even the pro-nuclear Business Council have withdrawn support. And there is significant opposition within the Labor party and trade unions.

Let's move on.

Perhaps the Premier will now see that this is a non-starter. He could save face, claiming the government was prepared to tackle hard issues in the interest of the State. Unfortunately he seems determined to press ahead. But please, whatever the political outcome, can we stop undermining the honest hard work of the jurors by claiming they were 'biased'. The jury reached a democratic decision despite attempts to manufacture consent for a cautious 'go ahead. Was this was solely evidence-based or influenced by lack of trust in the government's capacity to manage the project and the way the facilitation team managed the jury process? My sense it was a bit of both; but based on evidence and the experience, not just emotion and opinion. Let's now move on and consider how we might invest the money that would have been needed for this nuclear waste project in creating sustainable jobs in South Australia – manufacturing and installing the technologies needed for low carbon energy future.

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About the Author

Tony Webb has an MSc in Energy Resources Management and a PhD in the social psychology of political change processes. He has worked on radiation safety issues in the UK, USA Canada and Australia, and has been involved in a Danish Citizenís "Consensus Conference".

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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