The UK's root and branch waste review

3 July 2003

The UK government will shortly introduce legislation to transfer nuclear liabilities to a new decommissioning authority. The process has prompted a new examination of the extent of the UK's liabilities and its regulatory process.

The UK's nuclear waste will in future be managed by a body initially referred to as the Liabilities Management Authority (LMA), but now renamed the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). The new organisation will be established by statute as a non-departmental public body. This means it will be an organisation that is not directly part of government but is responsible to government. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be accountable to parliament for the NDA's activities. Appropriate arrangements will be put in place for the involvement of Scottish ministers and for reporting and accountability to the Scottish parliament, while the National Assembly for Wales will have a 'direct interest' in the authority's work and will be involved in reviewing its plans and performance.

The NDA's main task will be to put an overall strategy in place for dealing with the legacy safely, securely and in accordance with national and international environmental requirements. Its functions and duties will be set out in legislation. In particular, this means:

• The NDA taking legal and financial responsibility for legacy sites and ensuring that the right arrangements are in place to drive forward the cleanup programme.

• Holding those responsible for site management to account, for performance against objectives laid down by the NDA.

• Putting in place long-term plans for the cleanup of all of its sites and ensuring that short-term priorities for each site over a 5-10 year period are clearly identified.

• Ensuring that the skills and resources required for cleanup are available and can be sustained over the medium and long term.

• In conjunction with site licensees and the nuclear regulators, managing the competing demands of different sites to ensure that the skills and resources available are used to best effect, both at individual sites and across the legacy clean-up programme as a whole.

• Working with licensees and the regulators to exploit synergies between sites and applying relevant lessons learned at one site to others.

• Drawing on best practice overseas and in other sectors to improve performance and delivery.

In preparation for the setting up of the NDA, a Liabilities Management Unit (LMU) with 19 staff has already begun work. In preparing the ground for the NDA, the LMU will:

• Acquire a detailed knowledge and understanding of BNFL and UKAEA liabilities and management arrangements for dealing with them, which can be passed on to the NDA.

• Work with BNFL in developing and refining key performance indicators for BNFL liabilities management and monitoring performance against them.

• Take action to promote competition for nuclear clean-up work with a view to creating a viable long-term supply chain for the NDA.

• Develop baseline strategies for contracting and procurement, and an organisational structure which the NDA can build on once it is operational.

• Establish common methodologies for estimating the cost of legacy clean-up.

• Establish close working arrangements with the nuclear regulators.

The LMU will also be exploring possibilities for competitive tendering of site management contracts. Early candidates for competition might include decommissioning Magnox stations, Capenhurst and Drigg. The LMU will also be developing draft contracts, drawing on US and wider contracting strategies. Once established, the NDA will build on these relationships as part of its strategy for developing and managing its supply chain.


The NDA will consolidate waste from BNFL and UKAEA and funding for both clean-up operations.

At present, funding for BNFL's cleanup activities accrues from several sources. Some 12% comes from the company's commercial customers, while the UKAEA and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), as customers, together provide 20% of the costs. Since 1996, BNFL has operated its own nuclear liabilities investment portfolio, which currently stands at around £4 billion, held in cash and government stocks and shares. Finally, the government agreed in 1998, when the Magnox stations were transferred from British Energy to BNFL, to make payments totalling £4.8 billion to cover liabilities. Those payments will be made between 2008 and 2116.

The UKAEA cleanup is funded by the Department of Trade & Industry and the Ministry of Defence. Allocations are made on a three-yearly basis as part of the government spending review and currently stand at around £250 million per year.

The government's white paper, titled "Managing the Nuclear Legacy A strategy for action", published in July 2002, offers two proposals for funding the NDA, acknowledging that the three-year spending cycle is very short-term sometimes considerably shorter than a single project. It proposes either a segregated decommissioning fund, similar to a pension fund, or an account, backed by a consolidated fund. It pointed out that the fund would offer more freedom of action but it would have to be managed, and would incur administration costs and potential tax liabilities. The account the government's preferred option would be simpler and cheaper and would allow it to be managed with wider government finances. However, the government invited views on these mechanisms and on alternatives.

White Paper response

The UK government printed a summary of responses to the white paper in December 2002. It found that there was broad support for the setting up the NDA.

Respondents raised some concerns about co-ordinating NDA's roles and responsibilities with other nuclear agencies, for example the site licensees. Some were concerned about a conflict of interest within the Department of Trade and Industry and proposed that the NDA should report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The role of Nirex should also be considered. Other respondents suggested the authority should take responsibility for various other nuclear wastes, varying from sealed sources and MoD civil liabilities to liabilities arising from British Energy. But if there were new nuclear build, the NDA should not have ownership or financial responsibility for any resulting waste streams or liabilities.

On funding, the majority of responses supported the segregated fund, rather than the segregated account. The respondents thought the fund would be more flexible, would increase public confidence in the NDA and would demonstrate to the public that the government is taking a long-term approach. It would demonstrate accountability, making it "absolutely and demonstrable clear that these funds will be allocated in accordance with this purpose" and would be efficient as it would be able to plan for the long term without the risk of serious fluctuations in funding provisions.

The general view was that whichever funding option is chosen, it is essential that it:

• Is neutral to the election cycle.

• Avoids political pressure to put off expenditure in favour of more popular objectives.

• Provides continuity of programme for at least 10 years ahead.

• Allows flexibility of contract approaches.

• Allows for variations in annual spend profile.

The respondents had a variety of concerns over intellectual property and scientific knowledge. They said the NDA should retain enough R&D capability to ensure it was an "intelligent customer".

Consistent regulation

The white paper noted that the various regulatory bodies that oversee nuclear activities and nuclear waste management should look for greater commonality of approach, and better standardisation of regulatory principles, along with greater clarity on the factors that affect regulatory decisions and the way regulation is applied at low dose rates.

These issues were addressed in a joint review by two independent committees: the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee (NuSAC) and the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC).

Published in March 2003, the joint review concludes: "The nuclear safety and environmental protection regulators are now working to essentially different sets of basic principles and standards or, at the very least, to similar but differently worded principles whose relationships have not been adequately identified and explained."

Acknowledging that the regulatory bodies were making "strenuous efforts" on co-ordination, the committees nevertheless said that the UK regulatory system was not an ideal one, based on sound and consistent science, and that it was not always perceived as acting in an open and transparent manner, owing to the lack of clarity.

The report recommended that the principles underlying the regulation of nuclear safety and environmental protection should be set out in a single document that explained how the two systems fitted together and was clearly based on a consistenr approach to managing risk. Common regulations should apply to all users of radioactive materials.

The report identified four current areas of development where a common regulatory approach would be needed. They were:

• Radiation dose assessment, where different agencies have used different methodologies and assumptions to assess dose arising from activity releases, producing different prospective dose figures.

• The effects of low level radiation. Risk models on internal radionucleides are being studied by the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters. In the light of that review a "clear and common position" for the regulation of safety and nuclear discharges is necessary.

• Effects of radiation on non-human species. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) has set up a task group to consider advice on this issue, and the UK Environment Agency has to consider those effects under new government guidance.

• Remediation of contaminated land. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has been working on generic criteria for the 'no danger' delicensing requirement. A commonly agreed approach is required for environment agencies who will have to deal with decontamination of sites other than nuclear licensed sites and for all the agencies who have to decide whether to transfer large volumes of very low-level waste to storage or leave contamination on site.

Defining radwaste

Some respondents to the UK white paper pointed out that the UK definitions of contaminated land and very low-level waste were far from clear. This issue has been addressed in some detail recently in two reports published by RWMAC.

The committee said that an accurate measure of all types of radioactive waste would be a "basic requirement" in tackling the UK's nuclear legacy. In two reports published together March this year (on managing low-level waste and on the radioactive waste inventory) the "central finding" was that additional capacity would be required for low-level waste disposal, while the nuclear plants now being decommissioned would produce "huge amounts of lightly contaminated soil and rubble" that had not yet been accounted for. Professor Charles Curtis, RWMAC chairman, said: "These studies raise issues of real concern."

The committee said that the scale of the low-level waste problem was growing, and difficult to assess "given the current policy void on nuclear facility decommissioning and the absence of end-point standards for site cleanup." At the same time, licensed disposal facilities, along with landfill and incineration options, are diminishing. This is liable to place greater pressure on the UK's low-level waste (LLW) disposal facility at Drigg in Cumbria, the remaining lifetime of which, as a consequence, may be reduced.

The committee said that a problem which is beginning increasingly to confront nuclear operators is what to do with the large volumes of building rubble and contaminated soil at the lower end of the LLW activity range that are now being identified. These wastes need to be dealt with as nuclear facility decommissioning and site clean-up programmes get underway. Such waste has contamination of the order of 10Bq/g (0.01GBq/t) or less. This is around a thousandth of the LLW upper activity limit.

For example, large volumes of contaminated soil with an overall contamination level below a few tens of becquerels per gramme are expected to arise from decontamination and site cleanup at BNFL Sellafield . They have never been recorded in the radioactive waste inventory (RWI) because BNFL believes that the volume of such material potentially above 106m3 is so large that some form of in situ management will ultimately be necessary.

RWMAC said it did not believe that moving very large volumes of waste, at the lower end of the LLW activity range, from one site to another is likely to be an effective and efficient means of dealing with it, particularly if the site to which it is moved is Drigg, a scarce UK national resource.

What RWMAC believes to be necessary, therefore, is serious consideration of the ways in which such wastes might be safely left on, or close to, the site at which they arise, in some suitably located, engineered and, possibly, access-controlled facility. The UK Health and Safety Executive and the environment agencies might also be supportive of such an approach provided the necessary safety cases can be made and there is the necessary policy backing from Government. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is currently awaiting the outcome of research into controlled landfill burial funded by the Scottish and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research before reaching any decision. But the committee said it was increasingly important to identify the desired site condition end point early in the planning process. In the committee's opinion, any perception that sites can be returned to a totally uncontaminated greenfield status, such as existed before the nuclear facilities were built, is likely to be unrealistic for the vast majority of large installations.

RWMAC identifies the fate of Dounreay's waste as an important indicator. It asks whether large volumes of radioactive waste should be moved from Dounreay in Scotland, across national borders, from a site where the waste was generated, and which has benefited from past employment opportunities, to place further pressure on the Drigg facility? Such a move could prove particularly contentious if, as a result of a future post-closure safety case assessment, it was, in due course, found necessary to recover the waste in the Dounreay LLW disposal pits for some other means of long-term management.

RWMAC believes, therefore, that such issues need to be fully considered and addressed before any decision is taken to allow the disposal of Dounreay wastes to Drigg, even if made only as an interim measure for operational wastes.

Policies and standards for remediating contaminated land, both on and off nuclear licensed sites "is an issue that has been ongoing within government for a number of years, with no clear outcome to date," the committee said. "Put simply, there is no way that any party can reliably identify the volumes of waste that are likely to arise until decontamination targets are determined."

While local people may want to see such radioactivity removed, the public at large would be unlikely to want it buried near them, and would probably be alarmed by the prospect of large volumes of radioactive waste being transported over long distances. If sent to the LLW site at Drigg it would quickly fill it and a new site would be required. Consideration of the role of in situ burial and on-site landfill disposal of LLW and very low-level waste (VLLW, or the nuclear industry equivalent) for arisings from nuclear facility decommissioning and site cleanup programmes will be necessary. Without this, there is the possibility that operators could be committed to inappropriate waste management practices.

Refined estimates of LLW and VLLW (or nuclear industry equivalent) arisings from nuclear facility decommissioning and site clean-up activities are needed for inclusion in the RWI. The extreme fluctuations recorded for LLW arisings between the 1998 and 2001 RWIs are worrying, and call into question its adequacy for future planning requirements. The committee said that the new NDA would need reliable estimates to enable it to perform its function, and it called for a public debate on how to treat such very low-level waste, and formulation of government guidelines to which the NDA could work.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.