UK relaunches search for a GDF site

Article by Amanda Jasi

The UK has relaunched its search for a site to bury its nuclear waste after previous plans were halted when the local council of a potential site voted to withdraw from the process. The selected site will host a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for the disposal of higher activity radioactive waste.

GDFs are specially-designed facilities for the isolation of radioactive waste deep underground, built at a depth between 0.2 and 1 km. They consist of multiple barriers which prevent radioactivity from reaching the surface and isolate the waste from effects at the surface, such as climate change. The barriers are vitrification (conversion of liquid waste to solid); waste containers made of stainless steel, iron, or concrete; a material buffer around the container, such as clay; engineered features, such as vaults and tunnels, that are backfilled and sealed; and isolation inside suitable rock. GDFs are designed to provide protection over hundreds of thousands of years.

Internationally, experts consider geological disposal to be the best option for managing higher activity radioactive waste. It is official policy in some countries, including the UK, which does not yet have an available site.

In December 2018 the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published Implementing Geological Disposal – Working with Communities. The document replaced the 2014 white paper, Implementing Geological Disposal.

The new document details the Government’s overarching policy for geological disposal of higher activity radioactive waste and how the Government will work with communities to identify a suitable location, said Richard Harrington, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Business and Industry.

The government also launched a new national consent-based process to find a site to host the facility, which will allow local communities to play a key role in the process. Site selection will not only be decided by geological suitability of the area, but also the willingness of the community to host a GDF.

Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) is a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and is leading the search for a site. In support of the consent-based process, RWM published the following information for communities:

A consultation, the Site Evaluation consultation, was also launched. It details how the Government will evaluate sites in England.

In 2013, a local community council voted against progressing a GDF during the selection site process. BBC News reported on the concerns of council members, which included the suitability of the geology, and the potential impact on the Lake District’s reputation.

Malcom Morley, Chairman of the RWM’s Board of Directors, said: “RWM recognises that this nationally-important project needs to contribute positively to the community within which it is located. Working with communities will be at the very centre of its approach to the delivery of the GDF.”

Bruce McKirdy, Managing Director of RWM, said: “We will now embark upon an engagement programme to help individuals, businesses and communities understand how they can get involved.”

Globally, several deep geological disposal projects are underway. In the US, the purpose-built Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is operational for the disposal of transuranic radioactive waste. Yucca Mountain is the US’ high-level waste disposal project, but since gaining approval in 2002 it has experienced delays due to political interference and has faced public opposition.

In Finland a deep geological disposal site for the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel is under construction. Other countries with projects underway include Sweden, France, and Canada.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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