The Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste in England: Recent Developments

There have been two recent changes in the quest to find a permanent site for the geological disposal of higher activity radioactive waste.

Written Ministerial Statement

In a written statement to Parliamenton 17 October, the Minister for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, NadhimZahawi, designated the National Policy Statement (NPS) for Geological DisposalInfrastructure, following its laying before parliament on 4 July. This markedthe final parliamentary step in the NPS process.

The Ministerstressed the importance of those who have benefited from nuclear technologytaking appropriate steps to manage the associated radioactive waste, adding theimportant role nuclear technology plays in transitioning to a carbon neutraleconomy. He also acknowledged that geological disposal is internationallyrecognised “as the safest and most secure means of permanently managing aproportion of this waste not suitable for other management regimes”.

He went on tosay that the NPS provides an “appropriate and effective framework for thePlanning Inspectorate and the Secretary of State for the Department forBusiness, Energy and Industrial Strategy to examine and make decisions ondevelopment consent applications for geological disposal infrastructure inEngland.” (Note that responsibility for this area in the United Kingdom isdevolved to its separate countries and this NPS therefore only applies toEngland).

As well as thegeological disposal facility (GDF), the NPS also covers deep borehole investigationswhich will be necessary to characterise the geology at potential sites.Accompanying the NPS, the government has also published associateddocuments:

Further Backing

Furtherendorsement of the approach to achieving geological disposal was announced lastweek by the nuclear and environmental regulators. Implementation of geologicaldisposal is the responsibility of Radioactive WasteManagement (RWM), a subsidiary of the Nuclear DecommissioningAuthority. They are not yet subject to formal regulation, but in theirjoint annual report, the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Environment Agency (EA) reportedon the outcome of their scrutiny of RWM during 2018-19.

ONR and EA worktogether “to make sure that any future geological disposal facility (GDF)will meet the high standards for environmental protection, safety and securitythat the public expects.” They will engage with RWM early in the process ofidentifying potential sites so that when a site is identified RWM alreadyclearly understands what it needs to do as part of the regulatory process. Theyalso liaise regularly with RWM to make sure that it gives the right advice towaste producers about packaging radioactive waste for future disposal at a GDF.

They say thatRWM has significantly improved its generic Disposal System Safety Case,including taking the regulators’ earlier advice, noting though that “RWMstill has a significant amount of work to do to develop a comprehensive,site-specific safety case and many aspects can only be fully evaluated once asite has been selected and specific designs produced.”

They added, “Weare satisfied that RWM liaises with government and regulators to establishcommon understanding and manages any necessary changes through its changecontrol process.” Further, “RWM has made significant progress towardsaddressing the need to protect groundwater resources and human health from thenon-radioactive component of the inventory for disposal, and is providing thenecessary advice to waste producers.”

While these twopieces of news are positive, the overall quest to find a site is still a workin progress and RWM is engaging with communities to inform this work.

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