Nuclear decommissioning and waste management – an introduction

The UK opened the world’s first civil nuclear power station at Calderhall in Cumbria in 1956 and has since developed a network of nuclear power stations of various designs. These are located across Britain, and there is a wider landscape of facilities related to defence, research, industrial processes and medicine, all of which generated radioactive waste.

The first generation of nuclear stations have all now closed and are undergoing decommissioning, where the hazard on the site is diminished or removed; and the waste sent for storage and eventually disposal. This task is being undertaken by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), a public body.

The current fleet of Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors (AGRs) will all shut in the next few years, while a single Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) will continue to operate until the mid-2030s.

By far the greatest challenge is the decommissioning of the Sellafield site in West Cumbria. This is the UK’s largest industrial site, employing 10,000 people. It contains a range of high hazard facilities, legacy ponds and silos that are extremely difficult to remediate. The site also contains closed reprocessing plants and a wide range of other facilities of varying complexity.

Nuclear power generates a range of nuclear wastes of different types. By far the largest volume is classed as Low-Level Waste (LLW), with much smaller quantities of Higher Activity Wastes (HAW). A range of other materials, including Spent Nuclear Fuel, Uranium and Plutonium are not classified as wastes but might be in future.

Radioactive waste can be managed in a variety of ways, informed by the risk it poses to people and the environment. Increasingly, the aim is to manage wastes in the most sustainable way possible, so techniques such as waste minimisation, smelting, compaction and recycling are used to reduce the volume of waste that needs to be disposed of.

Much LLW can be disposed of in landfill sites or in the dedicated LLW Repository in Cumbria. HAW is more challenging. The UK and Welsh Government’s preferred option for much of this material to be placed in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) located many hundreds of metres below the surface in suitable rock. The Government and NDA is also investigating whether some of the HAW might be better disposed of in a Near Surface Disposal (NSD) facility, based on vaults or silos closer to the surface.

Looking forward, the UK Government has made a commitment to up to 24GW of new nuclear power. All these facilities will produce new wastes that will have to be managed safely. Proposals include the development of conventional large new nuclear stations, but it is also envisaged that a range of new, smaller reactors may be developed – called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) or Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs). The Government also backs the development of Fusion power, a very different technology that is not as yet able to produce commercial electricity.

The UK’s nuclear legacy impacts significantly on the communities that host the various facilities. The view of local government, and local people, must be taken into account. Nuleaf (Nuclear Legacy Advisory Forum) represents English and Welsh local government on these issues. We have over 100 councils and national park authorities as members, and we seek to make sure our members voices are heard and they are fully informed of all aspects of our nuclear legacy. The other pages on this website provide more detailed information on the range of issues we engage with, in the UK and overseas.