Geological disposal best option for managing radioactive waste

Geological disposal best option for managing radioactive waste

Bruce McKirdy, managing director at Radioactive Waste Management, sets out why geological disposal is the best long-term option for managing higher activity radioactive waste

From the production of electricity to use in defence and medical treatments, the UK has used nuclear technology for more than sixty years.

A by-product of this technology is radioactive waste, much of which is already stored and actively managed in secure interim surface facilities around the UK.

We need to do the right thing and move from storage to safely and responsibly disposing of this waste to protect people and the environment for generations to come.

Radioactive Waste Management, part of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, is responsible for delivering a solution to manage the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste for the long-term.

That solution is geological disposal for which the government recently set out new policies to support the search for a permanent site to dispose of this waste in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).

The UK is not alone in seeking to implement such a solution. Geological disposal is recognised around the world as the best long-term option for managing higher activity radioactive waste.

Sweden, France and Finland have already identified their preferred GDF sites, with construction underway in Finland, while others, including Switzerland and Canada, are well on their way to finding a site.

A GDF is a highly-engineered facility, consisting of surface and sub-surface facilities, with the majority located below ground.

The underground part of a GDF is a network of tunnels and vaults, built at a depth of between 200 and 1,000 metres. It can be built in three different geological rock environments, all commonly found throughout the UK.

The construction and operation of a GDF will be one of the most important long-term environmental protection projects ever undertaken in the UK – it will generate significant skilled employment opportunities over generations, creating hundreds of direct and indirect jobs throughout its lifetime.

The process to find a site for a GDF is consent-based, meaning it requires both a suitable site and a willing host community. RWM will spend the next few years working closely with interested parties and community representatives who want to explore if a GDF could work for them in their area.

Designated a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, the construction and operation of this multi-billion pound facility is likely to last for more than 125 years.

Maintaining effective communications

Simon Norris is the Prospect lay rep at RWM and a geoscientist by background. He firmly believes that due to the enduring nature of the GDF project, it’s vital to build and maintain effective communications with stakeholders and potential host communities.

Prospect, with its strong involvement in the UK nuclear sector and through its recently-formed GDF working group, chaired by full-time officer Jez Stewart, is a key strategic partner to RWM and the GDF project.

As with every aspect of the nuclear industry, safety is paramount.

The GDF design delivers the highest standards of safety through a multi-barrier approach. Radioactive waste is isolated and contained by multiple layers of carefully engineered containment working together with a suitable stable rock mass, so that no harmful levels of radiation ever reach the surface environment.

Together the natural and engineered complementary barriers will be capable of withstanding sea level rises, seismic activity and even the effects of future ice ages hundreds of thousands of years into the future.

RWM will of course have to meet some of the most rigorous environmental and nuclear regulatory standards anywhere in the world before a licence to construct and operate the facility is awarded.

We have used nuclear technologies since the late 1950s and we should therefore collectively work towards a safe disposal solution once and for all.

Working collaboratively with other radioactive waste management organisations around the world, RWM is well-placed to deliver this nationally significant project on behalf of today’s and future society.

Learn more about the UK’s mission to deal with radioactive waste