Waste plan revealed

12 June 2008

A step-by-step process has begun in the UK to select a site and design a single facility to store radioactive waste for ever. Today's white paper, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal, said that principles of "voluntarism and partnership" are to be used in the selection process.

Communities across the UK have now been invited to express an interest in hosting the facility on a no-commitment basis. The white paper said that communities taking part would have the right to withdraw from the process until a "late stage" when construction was about to begin and could receive financial assistance in paying the costs of their participation in the site selection process. They would then benefit from the jobs and infrastructure a disposal vault would bring, as well as from a tailored benefits package.

The facility itself is to be created deep underground, where groundwater flow is minimal and solid rock formations provide an immovable barrier between the wastes and the environment. Its exact design will be determined once a site is known, according to waste inventories at that time and predicted for the future. Another thing to be decided later is whether to design the facility so that the waste can be removed at some time in the future. In the meantime, the option of retrievability is to be kept open.

The UK has a large variety of different intermediate- and high-level radioactive wastes, coming from national programs to develop nuclear weapons and nuclear power. It is a national responsibility to pay for the management of these. In addition, the country is about to embark on a new program of nuclear build, which politicians say is to be entirely paid for by private enterprise, including decommissioning and waste disposal

Most of the land in the UK is thought to be geologically suitable for the store, but Northern Ireland can be all but discounted from the siting process due to sensitivities in the UK-Ireland relationship, and current Scottish leaders are against nuclear power. In Wales, the devolved assembly "considers that it would be unproductive at this stage to ask Welsh communities to consider accepting waste from new nuclear power stations." Communities in the English county of Cumbria are known to be interested in the project, largely because of their connections to the Sellafield nuclear site.

All communities that express an interest in the facility will have the same 'sub-surface unsuitability test' to establish that the project could be feasible at their area. The communities would then consider making a decision to participate further. Detailed studies of the remaining candidate areas would then be carried out before underground operations began.

In Sweden, a similar process has narrowed the list of potential sites down to two - Oskarshamn and Forsmark - and a final siting decision is expected wthin months.

During this process, and the time taken for construction of the store, the higher activity wastes are to be kept in storage buildings above ground, some of them new. At present the majority is at Sellafield, while some remains at power generation sites.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has the responsibility to dismantle facilities from the national nuclear power and research programs, is to take the lead on the forthcoming process. It will continue to conduct research on waste management, while its Radioactive Waste Management Directorate will actually deliver the disposal project.