Disposing of radioactive waste underground

Three nuclear regulatory bodies in England and Wales are working together as proposals progress to dispose of radioactive waste in a facility deep underground.

The Health and Safety Executive HSE Nuclear Directorate, which regulates safety and security at nuclear sites, the Environment Agency link to external website, which regulates environmental aspects, and the Department for Transport link to external website, which regulates the transport of radioactive material, all have interest in the geological disposal facility (GDF).

The UK Government signalled its intent to develop a deep geological disposal facility for higher activity radioactive wastes through its White Paper ‘Managing Radioactive Waste Safely – A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal PDF link to external website.

The facility is decades from construction and none of the three organisations has any formal regulatory role in the GDF process to date, or in selecting a site for it, but they are working together to provide advice and comment on safety matters.

Cumbria is the only region of England and Wales, thus far, to have declared an interest in hosting this underground storage facility and representatives of the joint regulators attended 10 recent public consultation events held in the county.

Bill Turner, one of the inspectors involved in the GDF programme at HSE’s Nuclear Directorate, said: “We have no formal regulatory role in selecting a site for a geological disposal facility, but we will help the process by advising and commenting on safety matters that could become important when our regulatory role begins.

“During the site selection stage, we will provide advice to Government, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority link to external website, local authorities and interested communities.

“As the safety and security regulator for the nuclear industry in the UK, we are responsible for making sure that any future facility meets the required high standards for protecting workers, the public and the environment when it is developed, while it is operated and after it has closed.

“Working together now with the Environment Agency and Department for Transport will help us better prepare for our roles in regulating the development and operation of any future facility.

“The work we’ve been involved in at the moment is to scrutinise the work of the NDA’s Radioactive Waste Management Directorate link to external website (the organisation which must deliver the GDF) to provide early comment and review of the GDF programme.”

The regulators have created a joint website link to external website to explain their role in the geological disposal facility.

Geological disposal involves disposal of radioactive waste packages in an engineered underground facility. The principle is that the rock structure provides a barrier against escape of radioactivity and the depth substantially protects the waste from effects at the surface arising from, for example, climate change. The facility’s precise design will depend on its host geology. Possible designs exist for clay formations, salt deposits and hard rock (such as granite), and include vaults for waste disposal, access tunnels and a shaft for access from the surface.

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