Producing electricity with nuclear energy creates nuclear waste. However, most of our waste comes from the previous generation of nuclear power stations and early nuclear research.

© Magnox Limited

The UK is a world leader in nuclear waste management

The UK is a world leader in nuclear waste management, having successfully processed and stored low, intermediate and high level nuclear waste from UK and overseas at Sellafield for over 50 years.

A new fleet of nuclear power stations would only add 10% to the volume of existing waste over their 60-year lifespan.

All of the UK’s nuclear waste is securely contained with an ever-increasing amount being solidified to make it suitable for long-term management. Other countries have already demonstrated how safe and secure long-term management and permanent disposal of nuclear waste is feasible. Countries such as Finland and Sweden are in the process of constructing deep geological radioactive waste disposal sites, following successful Government and public consultation.

There are three levels of waste:

High Level Waste

(HLW)

Made up of reprocessed or unreprocessed spent fuel, HLW requires cooling as it is heat emitting. It accounts for 95% of the radioactivity produced from generating electricity, but only 3% of waste by volume.

It is evaporated down before being sent to the Vitrification plant at Sellafield where the waste is turned into a solid form, reducing its volume to one third of its original size. It is then placed into stainless steel containers and stored above ground with cooled natural air convention.

Intermediate Level Waste

(ILW)

ILW is a category of nuclear waste which includes materials such as fuel element cladding, contaminated equipment and radioactive sludge which requires shielding.

This waste comes from current commercial activities as well as historical operations and is encapsulated inside stainless steel containers and stored on the Sellafield site in above ground stores.

Low Level Waste

(LLW)

Produced by hospitals and industry as well as from operations to create nuclear energy, LLW comprises paper, rags, tools and clothing.

LLW makes up 90% of the volume of total nuclear waste, but only 1% of the radioactivity.

The waste is compacted into containers and stored at the UK’s Low Level Waste Repository at Drigg, Cumbria.

Long term waste management

Nuclear waste is currently stored in safe and secure above ground facilities, but the Government is looking at underground storage – a Geological Disposal Facility – for the long term.

In July 2014 a government white paper set out the process on the approach to making geological disposal happen. The favoured approach was where communities came forward to show interest in hosting a facility, called ‘volunteerism’. Much work has been undertaken to assess the UK’s geology to help inform discussions with communities who express an interest in hosting a facility.

The siting process, with communities who are interested in hosting a facility, will begin in 2018.

A GDF is a highly engineered structure similar to a deep mine with a small surface footprint which will store waste underground. It is internationally accepted as the safest option for storing higher activity waste.

A GDF would isolate waste and contain the radioactivity into a secure environment. It will use multiple barriers, within rock, and be permanently sealed. The highly engineered structure will be between 200 meters and 1000 meters underground and at such a depth be protected from earthquakes, tsunamis and other environmental changes.

The waste to be disposed of will include high level waste, intermediate level waste and a small amount of low level waste which cannot be stored on the surface.

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