Siting a Geological Disposal Facility

Introduction

Current UK and Welsh Government policy is for the UK’s Higher Activity Radioactive Waste[1] (HAW) to be disposed of in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), a large scale, highly engineered development located deep underground in suitable geology. Through the use of multiple barriers contained within an appropriate rock formation, itself a further barrier, the aim is to ensure that no harmful quantities of radiation reach the surface or affect humans and the environment.

GDF site cut-away

This approach was, with certain qualifications, recommended to Government by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), an independent expert advisory group. Geological disposal has been adopted by every country that has made a final decision on the long-term management of such materials.

Current policy on geological disposal

Current policy was launched in England in December 2018 and in Wales in January 2019 and is now being taken forward by Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). It has three main elements:

The Working with Communities policy for England and Wales provides the framework for engagement between the developer (RWM) and any local authority or community involved in the GDF siting process. The policy is based on a consent-based approach. In other words, it will be up to individual interested parties and local authorities to decide whether to enter and then remain in the process.   After many years of engagement and learning, the development will only proceed if the community gives its consent to the development through a test of support.

Local community engagement in the GDF siting process will be guided by a Community Partnership who will work with RWM and the wider local community over a period of 15-20 years and establish the suitability of any potential local sites. During this time each community will receive funding of £1million per annum, rising to £2.5 million per annum later on (see graphic below). Once a site has been agreed and the community has consented, further significant investment will be provided. The construction of a GDF and disposal of the waste will take around 100 years.

GDF timeline

As the GDF has been declared a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), the policy framework for planning decisions on Geological Disposal Infrastructure in England is governed by a National Policy Statement which was designated by the Secretary of State in October 2019.

Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM) has also undertaken a national geological screening exercise, the results of which were published in December 2018; and developed a range of other materials to help interested parties understand the geological aspects of the siting process.

In addition, RWM is developing its approach to how it will assess the relative merits of individual sites that are put forward as possible locations for a GDF. A Site Evaluation consultation ran in early 2019 and the final approach is expected to be published in the near future.

More information on geological disposal and the siting process can be found in NuLeAF Briefing Paper 17. NuLeAF’s Briefing Paper 19 explains CoRWM’s guidance on geological disposal.

RWM has also prepared a series of short videos explaining the siting process.

Implementation, scrutiny and regulation

As noted above, Government has tasked Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) with responsibility for implementing geological disposal on NDA’s behalf.

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) provides independent scrutiny and advice to Government on the long-term management of radioactive wastes.

The programme for siting a GDF is subject to regulatory scrutiny. The Environment Agency/Natural Resource Wales, along with the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR), are responsible for the regulation of the GDF process and ensuring that it is safe for humans and the environment.

The UK Government has reported annually to Parliament on progress with the GDF process. The last annual report was published in June 2019. The Welsh Government, working with Natural Resource Wales and ONR, will provide oversight for the GDF process in Wales.

NuLeAF policy and support for local authorities

NuLeAF’s Policy Statement 3 sets out our views on the GDF siting process.

NuLeAF supports the view of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) that geological disposal is, at the present time, the best available approach for the long-term management of higher activity waste. Local authorities have been given a central role at every stage of the GDF siting process and we are committed to supporting and advising any local authority engaging in the process.

In addition, NuLeAF will:

  • continue to represent local authority views in discussions with Government, RWM and the regulators;
  • provide a forum, through our Steering Group and Radioactive Waste Planning Group, for members to discuss the issues around geological disposal with RWM, government and regulators;
  • produce briefing material as required; and
  • respond to consultations.

NuLeAF has been, and is, closely involved in discussions about the GDF and the implementation framework. It has therefore built up knowledge and understanding of the issues, and relationships with those involved, including Government, RWM and the regulators.  If any local authority wishes to discuss potential involvement in the siting process with NuLeAF, please contact us on 01473 264833 or at geological.disposal@nuleaf.org.uk

Updates are provided in reports to the NuLeAF Steering Group which can be found in our Document Library.

Background to the current process

In July 2014, the Government, through a White Paper, set out a high-level framework and the further work that was required before a GDF siting process could begin.  The White Paper sought to build on the lessons learnt from the previous Managing Radioactive Waste Safely process (see below), while maintaining the core commitment that a Geological Disposal Facility would only be sited in a consenting community. Only communities in England and Wales can enter the process – Scotland has a different approach to HAW management.

The White Paper recognised that more work needed to be done on a range of issues including how a community is defined, who should be represented on any local siting partnership, how community funds should be managed, and how local support for proceeding with the development should be tested. These issues were considered by a Community Representation Working Group of which NuLeAF was a member. This reported to Government in summer 2016. At the same time work has been undertaken considering the geological and land use planning aspects of the process.

Managing Radioactive Waste Safely

The forerunner to the current Geological Disposal Facility siting process was the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) process launched by Government in 2008. In 2009 three local authorities in Cumbria submitted formal ‘Expressions of Interest’ to Government – Allerdale Borough Council, Copeland Borough Council and Cumbria County Council.

A partnership was established with participation from Allerdale Borough Council, Copeland Borough Council, Cumbria County Council, the Cumbrian Association of Local Councils and other local stakeholders. NuLeAF was also a member of the partnership. The partnership’s primary role was to advise the relevant local authorities about whether to take formal decisions to participate in the siting process for a GDF.

The final report of the Partnership was submitted to the three participating councils in July 2012. A decision on whether or not they should proceed to Stage 4 of the MRWS process was made by the councils on 30 January 2013. Allerdale and Copeland Borough Councils voted to proceed, but Cumbria County Council voted to withdraw. Because, under guidance from the UK Government, agreement was needed at both levels of local government (district and county) before any further work can be carried out, this effectively halted the process in West Cumbria. The Energy Secretary issued a statement regarding the councils’ decisions.

International approaches to the management of High Level Wastes

Disposal of higher activity wastes is being investigated by many countries. A synopsis of what approach is being taken elsewhere is available here.