Waste management is an important issue when considering nuclear energy. The UK nuclear industry takes management of its waste product very seriously, and we ensure that it can pose no risk to the environment.

The facts on nuclear waste are simple:

  1. We know how to manage it
  2. The process towards long-term storage of high-level waste is well underway
  3. Nuclear power produces only a very small volume of waste

Nuclear waste is divided into three types:

  • Low-level waste (LLW) includes items which might be contaminated with traces of radioactive materials – for example used protective clothing from nuclear facilities or hospitals. This is compacted and stored in drums and placed in engineered storage. Most of the UK’s LLW is disposed of at a secure storage facility near Drigg in Cumbria.

  • Intermediate-level waste (ILW) consists of solid and liquid materials from nuclear power stations and from fuel reprocessing. It is also stored in stainless steel containers and placed in engineered storage facilities at the site where it is produced.
  • High-level waste (HLW) is the concentrated waste produced when nuclear fuel is reprocessed. This is stored in liquid form in stainless steel tanks before being 'vitrified' (turned into glass blocks) and encapsulated into welded stainless steel containers.

The British Government set up the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management in 2003. In 2006 CoRWM recommended burying radioactive waste deep underground in a facility that could be monitored to make sure that material was not escaping, underpinned by robust interim storage until the facility was ready.

After accepting CoRWM’s proposals, in 2008 the government published a White Paper on waste management including six stages towards creating a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for existing wastes.

Stage 1: communities are invited to express an interest in participating in the process of finding a site for a GDF.

Stage 2: The British Geological Survey (BGS) ‘screens out’ any local rock types or formations that would be unsuitable for a DGF within the area expressing an interest.

Stage 3: the ‘Decision to Participate’ – the community decides whether to participate in the siting process.

Stage 4: desk-based studies of the geology in the area.

Stage 5: surface-based investigations (e.g. boreholes).

Stage 6: underground investigations and construction of a GDF. 

Three councils in Cumbria expressed an interest under Stage 1, and the BGS study (Stage 2) found that some of the geology, in an area near the coast, was unsuitable but the rest were not excluded by the process.

I n January 2013 three Cumbrian councils voted on whether to begin desk based studies on a GDF. Copeland and Allerdale Borough Councils voted in favour of participating in the next stage, but Cumbria County Council voted against proceeding to Stage 4. For the process to continue it is necessary that consent is given at both borough and county level.

The Government continues to hold the view that the best means of selecting a site for a GDF is an approach based on voluntarism and partnership working.

Evidence from abroad shows that this approach can work, with similar waste disposal programmes based on these key principles making good progress in countries like Finland, Sweden and France.

Until progress is made on a GDF, high-level waste will continue to be stored in incredibly secure and robust ground-level facilities.

CoRWM moved on to considering any waste that might arise from a programme of new nuclear reactors, and in its work programme set out that it would:

  • consider waste issues in the public assessment process for new build power stations;

  • formulate plans to ensure that, if new build wastes are created, they are safely and securely managed;

  • seek to prevent and, where that is not possible, minimise adverse impacts on the management of existing and committed wastes;

  • maintain public confidence in plans for the long-term management of new build wastes, in addition to existing and committed wastes.

It is often overlooked that an overwhelming majority of the UK waste inventory is low level – things like paper towels or coveralls which have been used in a power station. These products are often less radioactive than day-to-day substances such as Brazil nuts, fertilizer or coffee beans; but as they have been on a nuclear site, they are stored as waste.

It is also worth noting that the UK civil nuclear industry was responsible for the creation of only a small proportion of the nuclear waste which we are now managing. Much of it was created by Government in early research or military programmes. There are also a number of other ways in which nuclear waste is generated in the UK – most notably through the use of radiation in medical procedures and treatments.

From all these sources, we have a legacy of waste which we are working to manage. This legacy will be dealt with regardless of whether there is any nuclear new build, and indeed a new fleet of nuclear power stations would add only around 10% to the UK’s current waste inventory. New build nuclear power will be able to provide low-carbon electricity, and will have a minimal impact on the task of waste management; furthermore new build operators will pay their full share of the costs of waste management.

What is key is that there is one type of waste which is not produced in significant quantities by nuclear power – carbon dioxide, CO2. All forms of electricity generation produce a waste stream, whether it is the toxic by-products of manufacturing solar panels or the climate-changing CO2 which is released into the atmosphere every day by fossil fuels.

For more information:

The Governments Committee on Radioactive waste Management (CoRWM)

The Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) repository development process

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