Geological disposal of radioactive waste

The Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency have recently published two reports on work relating to possible disposal of most of the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste in a geological disposal facility deep underground.

Geological disposal is the UK Government’s preferred approach for the management of higher activity radioactive waste in England and Wales (as outlined in the Managing Radioactive Waste Safety Programme). Geological disposal involves placing radioactive wastes deep within a suitable rock formation where the rock formation provides long-term protection by acting as a barrier against escape of radioactivity and by isolating the waste from effects at the surface such as climate change.

ONR and the Environment Agency are providing advice and comment to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which is leading on delivering geological disposal through its Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD).

Neither ONR nor the Environment Agency has a formal regulatory role in selecting a site for a facility. ONR and the Environment Agency are helping the process by advising and commenting on safety and environmental matters, which would become important should their regulatory roles begin in the future.

ONR and the Environment Agency are jointly reviewing the development of the RWMD, as it seeks to establish an organisation capable of applying for the environmental permits and the nuclear site licence it might need for the future. A joint ONR and Environment Agency progress report  was published in November, following a review of the organisational development of the RWMD conducted in March 2011. This was the second regulatory progress review. ONR and Environment Agency will continue to review the development of RWMD and publish updates on our joint web-page.

RWMD has published a generic Disposal System Safety Case, which considers the generic aspects of safety, environmental protection and transport that are not site dependent. In December, the regulators published ajoint regulatory response from their review of the generic Disposal System Safety Case.

The RWMD have established their approach and outlined indicative timescales for development of the facility, which is currently in the preparatory period and may take decades to complete. However, in June 2011 Charles Hendry, the Minister of State for Energy asked the NDA to look at options for accelerating the programme. NDA has published a preliminary response to the Minister’s request.

The location of the site will be selected on a voluntary basis and invitations have been sent out to local authorities to express an interest in hosting the facility. To date, Copeland District, Allerdale District and Cumbria County Councils have done so. The three councils have formed the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely partnership and have recently launched a public consultation  to gather views on whether West Cumbria should take part in the search for a site for the GDF.

If you would like more information on how we would regulate any future GDF, ONR and the Environment Agency have set up a joint web-page. All our joint publications and progress reports are made available through this web-page.

For the NDA’s role, progress and the associated timescales, the NDA published a useful report ‘Steps towards Implementation’, which is available on the NDA website.