British wastes headed underground

11 January 2007

It has been announced that all of Britain's intermediate- and high-level radioactive wastes will be stored in robust facilities above ground until a permanent geologic repository is ready.

Environment Minister David Miliband made the announcement to parliament on 25 October. His words closely echoed those of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) which recently concluded a 'back to basics' study of the options for long-term radioactive waste storage. CoRWM consulted widely with the public and considered everything from disposal in ice sheets to disposal in space and the conventional underground storage option that was finally recommended.

The eventual facility would be an automated vault approximately 500 m underground in a solid a crystalline bedrock such as granite. It is thought that such a facility would cost about £2 billion ($3.9 billion) to build, while emplacing the waste and monitoring it to ensure safety could cost another £10 billion ($19.6 billion) over many, many years. Observers suggest 2040 as a realistic date for the store to begin operation.

The process to select a site will be planned during 2007. Miliband said: "We will consider how geological and scientific consideration will be meshed with other societal considerations."

Britain faces a particularly difficult challenge in radioactive waste management because of the country's history as a pioneer of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. This has resulted in a large variety of wastes with different radiological properties being held in a variety of packages at sites across the country, some of these have been in 'temporary' storage for over 50 years.

In addition, it is a longstanding policy of the UK to eventually deal with intermediate-level waste in the same way as high-level waste. This is because the range of materials that qualify as intermediate-level waste in the UK is such that some could be equally radioactive as high-level waste – the distinction being that the latter generates heat, whereas the former does not. The result is that a much larger volume of waste requires the most careful management

Further information

The Commitee on Radioactive Waste Management's report

WNA's Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom information paper