UK waste disposal plans released

5 July 2008

UK communities are being invited to step forward as potential hosts for the country’s geological radioactive waste disposal facility in a newly published government paper on radioactive waste management.

The UK government’s white paper, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: A Framework for Geological Disposal, was published in June and provides a blueprint for the long-term management and disposal of the country’s higher activity radioactive waste. It sets out a framework for the future implementation of geological disposal covering technical issues, regulation, planning processes, site selection and facility design. The paper is part of the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) programme and follows on from a 2007 consultation.

Geological disposal works on the principle of isolating waste deep inside a suitable rock formation, with natural and man-made barriers working together to ensure that harmful quantities of radioactivity cannot reach the surface environment. It will involve building an engineered facility with storage vaults at depths of 200-1000m depending on site geology, accessed by underground tunnels ('drifts'), vertical shafts or both. The exact design of the repository will depend on the site selected and the waste inventories – known and projected – that will need to be placed in it. The paper describes construction and operation of the disposal facility as a long-lived, multi-billion pound engineering project, providing hundreds of skilled jobs over “many decades”.

The government is keeping its options open on the question of retrievability – whether the repository should be permanently sealed when full or if waste remain accessible. While closure of the facility offers long-term safety, security and cost advantages, the timescales involved in constructing and filling it mean that the final decision on retrievability can, for the time being, easily be postponed.

The government says that in principle, there should be no need for the country to build more than one geologic disposal facility and that it would be “technically possible, and desirable” to dispose of waste arising from the UK’s much anticipated nuclear new build programme in the same facility. Actual amounts of waste arising from new build will depend on the scope and timing of the project. A baseline inventory based on the 2007 UK Radioactive Waste Inventory (UKRWI) suggests that, at 2040, the total packaged volume of waste requiring geologic disposal would be some 476,900 cubic metres representing 87.2 million Terabequerels of radioactivity. However, the baseline inventory does not yet include waste arising from any nuclear new build in the UK and in any case is expected to change over the years – for example, if alternative management options for some of the waste become available.

Voluntarism and partnership

Potential sites for the new facility will be found through an approach based on “voluntarism and partnership”, and the government has invited any communities in the UK interested in hosting such a facility to register their interest without commitment at this stage.

The government has promised to help cover some or all of the costs incurred by communities in taking part in the process. The successful community will benefit from the employment provided by the construction and operation of the repository but could also anticipate benefits to spin-off industry, infrastructure, educational and academic resources and local service industries.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Environmental Affairs (Defra) has set up a dedicated mrws-website aimed at providing information on radioactive waste and its long-term management to potential host communities.

Communities would retain a right to withdraw from the process up until the point when underground operations and construction begin. Although the voluntarism and partnership approach will be tailored to suit the local circumstances of each application, the white paper assures that such flexibility will not stretch to technical issues such as geology, where “objective and consistent assessment” is promised.

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