Waste management is an important issue when looking at nuclear energy. The UK nuclear industry takes management of its waste product very seriously, and ensures 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 UK civil nuclear industry is only responsible for a small proportion of nuclear waste which we are now managing. Much of it was created by Government in early research or military programmes. There are a number of ways in which nuclear waste is generated in the UK – most notably through the use of radiation in medical procedures and treatments.

This legacy waste is being be dealt with. The UK’s new nuclear programme is only expected to add around 10% to the current waste inventory. This programme will be able to provide low-carbon electricity, with minimal impact on the task of waste management; furthermore new build operators will pay their full share of the costs of waste management.

Geological Disposal Facility

A long-term solution for the storage of nuclear waste has been under Government consideration for several years. In June 2014, the Government produced a White Paper, Implementing Geological Disposal, detailing the suggestions for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) and the framework for managing high activity radioactive waste.  

Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM), the developer, will work with the Government to deliver a safe and secure site for the UKs nuclear waste. A GDF is the secure isolating storage of waste deep underground, where the radioactive levels are able to diminish safely over time.

The White Paper set out specific actions to take place between 2014 and 2016 which RWM have started work on:

  • bringing the development of a GDF in England within the definition of a ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project’ in the Planning Act 2008, including the production of a National Policy Statement
  • a national geological screening exercise
  • Working with experts and stakeholders to develop community representation mechanisms in the siting process, including a test of public support prior to a final decision

Once this phase is over, formal discussion between interested communities and the developer will begin.


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

For more information:

The Governments Committee on Radioactive waste Management (CoRWM)

Radioactive and nuclear substances and waste

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