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Going nuclear: inside SA’s deliberative policymaking citizens’ juries

South Australia is home to almost one quarter of the world’s known uranium resources.

Depending who you ask, using that uranium to generate power could either be a source of low-carbon energy and economic development in a state that needs it, or a risky gamble that compromises the safety of its inhabitants.

Notwithstanding some of the commenters on the YourSAy Nuclear Facebook page, for many it’s tough to know how the the risks and opportunities should be balanced. Unlike some other political debates, however, it’s also an issue in which the facts play a key role — what the risks are, how they are managed, whether energy generation is economically feasible.

This, the state government calculated, made it a good candidate for a deliberative process. Premier Jay Weatherill in particular is keen on the idea of citizens’ juries, arguing they have had a “civilising effect” on the public debate. He’s has provided political backing for the development of a range of innovative engagement initiatives.

The result has been one of the largest citizens’ jury processes so far in Australia, featuring two groups examining the potential for nuclear energy and waste in SA.

The idea informing deliberative democracy is that government should have “power with” rather than “power over” the people, says democracyCo CEO Emily Jenke, who has helped run the project for the state.

Citizens’ juries are useful for problems that are complex, hugely political, a test of facts as well as values and emotions, and don’t allow much time for consideration, Jenke told a session at this year’s Institute of Public Administration Australia national conference.

Political backing is vital

One of the most important aspects in making citizens’ juries work is strong political support.

While the government makes the ultimate decision — Weatherill commissioned the process because he is in favour of developing the state’s nuclear economy but wants public input — it has indicated it will take the opinions of the jury process seriously.

This type of in-depth engagement doesn’t come cheap — its total budget is around $3 million. But it’s not just the money. Like any engagement, if the minister has their mind made up from the start, you’re just wasting people’s time. Consultation for its own sake can actually be damaging to public confidence.

“You need an enabling leader,” Jenke explained. “Every jury I’ve done in the past five years has been sponsored by a minister or the head of SA Power or something, someone who can invoke change … If you don’t get that support at a really high level, it won’t work.”

So far the development of things like citizens’ juries has been mostly driven by individuals — Alannah Mactiernan was keen on deliberative processes back when she was West Australian Planning Minister, but they fell away after she left office. The idea seems to be catching on, however, with a spate of citizens’ juries being announced in different states recently.

The other thing is making sure “you have to have the skills, the capacity in the organisation to support it,” she argues. A chunk of her work as an engagement specialist is what she calls “client education” — explaining to government agencies how the process needs to run if it’s to be successful.

Madeline Richardson, chief executive of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission Consultation and Response Agency, emphasised that the process needed to be responsive to the community.

“One of the things that has been really important throughout the engagement process that my agency is leading is that this is a community-led conversation, that there needs to be a lot of transparency in the activities we’re undertaking, and we want it to be as robust as possible.”


Casting a wide net

The first step was the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, which was commissioned to conduct an independent, comprehensive investigation into the potential for increasing SA’s participation in the nuclear fuel cycle. The report, released in May, argued the state can safely increase its participation in the nuclear fuel cycle, suggesting it pursue the opportunity to establish facilities for the storage and disposal of used nuclear fuel and intermediate level waste, and that federal restrictions on nuclear power generation be removed.

Efforts have been made to include as many voices as possible and give citizens the opportunity to obtain information easily online and in person. The government set up drop-in centres around the state, which have seen thousands of face to face conversations with members of the community. They’ve visited 28 Aboriginal communities — an important constituency in the debate around where to store nuclear waste — and have consciously attempted to conduct consultation in a culturally respectful manner.

Interest groups have also been included in a structured way via a reference group, which has had input from business, environmental, union, Aboriginal and farming organisations.

The process behind the nuclear citizens’ juries

For the first citizens’ jury, over two weekends in June and July this year, 50 people considered which were the parts of the royal commission report “that everyone needs to discuss”. Participants were asked to read the parts of the report that interested them and decide what to talk about. Much of the discussion centred around the recommendation to pursue the opportunity to establish an international high-level waste storage facility. Concerns about safety, informed community consent, transparency, trust and accountability loomed large.

Jurors were chosen from a pool of 25,000 randomly-selected South Australian households, which received invitations outlining what the process was about and how it worked (even Jay Weatherill received an invitation. He declined.). Those who RSVP’d were then whittled down to 50, based on demographics. If 10% of the population is 18-24, they will make sure about 10% of participants are in that age range.

Jurors were given the chance to call whichever witnesses they wanted to quiz. They were given a long list of experts suggested by the reference group, but could choose anyone else they wanted. The name of the party recommending each witness was listed as well, for transparency.

A key element is ensuring jurors are presented with both the yes and no cases — the outcome won’t be credible if interest groups can claim participants weren’t given all the facts. The facilitators organised a ‘speed dialogue’, where interest groups could present their case and be questioned by participants.


One of the jurors, who was at the IPAA conference, was very positive about the whole citizens’ jury process. He thought the speed dialogue was “informative” and “very intense”, and said the jury was good at drilling into what each presenter was saying — asking what their credentials were, sometimes telling them they were straying off topic, asking what someone on the other side of the argument would say.

Traditional owners were also brought in to speak to jurors, which required cultural considerations not only around making Aboriginal speakers comfortable, but addressing barriers that might prevent jurors asking all the questions they wanted.

Jurors were paid around $500 in recognition of the 50 hours they were required to put in — though many expressed that this wasn’t a driving factor in the decision to participate.

The first citizens’ jury report, which was written by a group of the jurors, states that “we unanimously agree that all South Australians need to feel confident in all of the regulatory processes for the safety of themselves, the environment and for future generations.” On the issue of storing nuclear waste in South Australia, they found “that there is minimal impact on the public and workers as a result of the recommended activities”.

The second jury process, featuring 350 participants, is currently considering the question, “Under what circumstances, if any, could South Australia pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries?”. The 50 from the first jury are also involved in this second process.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.