The UK’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) has published its final recommendations for the long-term management of the UK’s intermediate- and high-level radioactive waste: geologic disposal with robust interim storage for the decades such a permanent store would take to implement.

The independent committee has produced a set of 15 recommendations following more than two years of exhaustive public enquiry and debate, and has called for immediate action to begin their implementation.

According to CoWRM’s report: “A large majority of CoRWM members have sufficient confidence in the long-term safety of geologic disposal.” The committee agreed that deep disposal in an underground repository would be the best available approach for long-term management of the waste in terms of safety and security. However, it believes that a robust programme of interim storage would be needed to safeguard the waste first for the 35 years the programme would be expected to take, but that preparations should be made for delays of up to a century and the possibility of never reaching a final disposal end point.

Gordon MacKerron, chairman of the comitteee, said: “The UK has been creating radioactive waste for 50 years without any clear idea of what to do with it. We are confident that our recommendations provide the way forward. It will, however, take a long time to put in place all the component parts so now it’s time to get on with the job.”

Among the fifteen recommendations are that:

  • CoRWM considers geological disposal to be the best available approach for the long-term management of waste. The aim should be to progress to disposal as soon as practicable.
  • A robust programme of interim storage must play an integral part in the long-term management strategy. Due regard should be paid to reviewing and ensuring security, particularly against terrorist attacks; ensuring the longevity of the stores themselves; prompt immobilisation of waste leading to passively safe waste forms; minimising the need for repackaging of the wastes; and the implications for transport of wastes.
  • CoRWM recommended a flexible and staged decision-making process to implement the overall strategy, which includes a set of decision points providing for a review of progress, with an opportunity for re-evaluation before proceeding to the next stage.
  • There should be a commitment to an intensified programme of research and development into the long-term safety of geologic disposal aimed at reducing uncertainties at generic and site-specific levels, as well as into improved means for storing wastes in the longer term.
  • The commitment to ensuring flexibility in decision making should leave open the possibility that other long-term management options could emerge as practical alternatives.
  • If a decision is taken to manage any uranium, spent nuclear fuel and plutonium as wastes, they should be immobilised for secure storage followed by geological disposal.
  • In determining what reactor decommissioning wastes should be consigned for geological disposal, due regard should be paid to considering other available and publicly acceptable management options, including those that may arise from the low-level waste review.

The UK national cleanup body which has responsibility for the wastes, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, welcomed the recommendation of the geological disposal solution but added: “We recognise the challenges of deciding at this stage the precise form of geological disposal, although our working assumption is that repository vaults would be left open through an operational phase lasting for several decades and that waste packages would remain available for examination and, potentially, for retrieval during this period. We recognise that implementation of a geological disposal solution may take a number of decades. In the meantime a ‘repository availability’ date for intermediate-level waste of 2040 is used in the NDA baseline plans.”