The key role of a Working Group is to start work of engaging a community in the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) siting process. Its job is to understand the local area and help address any issues or questions the community within it might have.
The Working Group identifies the geographical Search Area, a suitable site for a GDF. The Working Group also identifies the initial membership for a Community Partnership that could take forward engagement with NWS and the community.
It sets up a variety of communications methods to engage with its community, including events, websites social media channels and newsletters.
A Working Group has the following members: an Independent Chairperson, an Independent Facilitator, the Interested Party, Nuclear Waste Services (the GDF developer). The relevant Principal Local Authority is expected to be included although this is, in terms of government policy, optional. Other members are drawn from the local community, representing business, community and resident groups as the Working Group sees fit.
Government policy requires that, after initial discussions with NWS, any interested party wishing to move forward must inform all relevant principal local authorities and invite them to join the Working Group. There is, however, no requirement for relevant principal local authorities to join or confirm they are content for the Working Group to proceed without them if they decline to join. A Community Partnership, which is established by the Working Group, cannot proceed without local authority representation on it.
Government intention was to give principal local authorities a key role in the process, but with flexibility to decide the extent to which they get involved.
The Search Area is the geographical area within which the GDF developer will look to find a potential site. The Search Area has to be based on district electoral ward boundaries and it can be no smaller than a district council electoral ward. Community Partnership members must have lived or worked within the Search Area for at least 12 months prior to formation of the Partnership. The deep geology beyond the coast will also be considered for the underground part of a GDF, if appropriate.
Not all members of a Working Group are paid. The roles of Chair and Facilitator are paid and these costs are met by central government administered by NWS; the rates are commensurate with the roles and contract types. Other members of the WG will be reimbursed for expenses in relation to their work on the Working Group. Local authorities / Councils on a Working Group will not be out of pocket as a result of involvement in a Working Group but may claim for their time and costs directly related to WG work.
A Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) is the place where higher activity nuclear waste is disposed.
Geological disposal uses a series of engineered barriers which work together within the natural barrier provided by the deep, stable rock many hundreds of metres below the surface. This multi-barrier system isolates and contains the waste to prevent harmful quantities of radiation from ever reaching the surface environment.
A GDF will be constructed between 200 metres and 1000 metres underground. At this depth the waste will be protected from natural events and processes such as earthquakes, tsunamis and from long-term environmental changes such as future ice ages or sea level rise.
After all of the waste has been placed in the facility and the tunnels and vaults backfilled with concrete or other barrier materials, the access tunnels and shafts will be permanently sealed. The facility will remain safe without the need for further human intervention.
In 2006, The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), an organisation that provides independent scrutiny and transparent advice to the UK governments on the long-term management of higher activity radioactive wastes, published an appraisal of the technical options for managing the UK’s radioactive waste, taking into account ethical considerations, an examination of overseas experience and a wide-ranging programme of engagement with both the public and interested parties / stakeholders.
It was concluded that, within the present state of knowledge, a Geological Disposal Facility – disposal of radioactive waste in a purpose built facility between 200-1000m underground, with no intention to retrieve the waste once the facility is closed – to be the best available approach. In 2018, CoRWM confirmed this position in its Position Paper Why Geological Disposal?.
Alternatives to geological disposal are continually being carefully considered, for example, CoRWM recently published a Position Paper on deep borehole disposal. At present, other alternatives are all either not technically achievable (for example: converting the waste to non-radioactive material), not environmentally safe (disposal at sea or in ice sheets), or too dangerous to implement (firing the waste into space on rockets).
Scientists and other authorities all over the world agree that geological disposal is the safest way to deal with ‘higher-activity’ radioactive waste (the most radioactive kind) for the long term. This international consensus comes after decades of scientific research.
To demonstrate how a GDF meets the UK’s high standards of safety, security and environmental protection throughout the lifetime of the facility, the GDF developer, Nuclear Waste Services (NWS), will need to develop and maintain a number of safety cases (including operational safety, environmental safety and transport) and security plans, all of which will be subject to scrutiny by the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, the UK’s independent nuclear regulators. A GDF will only be built if it can meet all of the requirements of the regulators.
Radioactive waste is radioactive material for which there is no further use. Most comes from the nuclear power generation, but it is also a by-product of many medical and industrial processes and research and defence activities that make use of radioactivity and radioactive matter.
The specific types of higher activity radioactive waste (and nuclear materials that could be declared as waste) which would comprise the inventory for disposal in a GDF are:
Radioactive wastes that will be disposed of in a Geological Disposal Facility are currently being packaged in specially engineered containers and stored at over 30 surface storage facilities across the UK. They will need to be replaced within 50 – 100 years – presenting an economic and environmental burden on our society and for future generations.
The high-level waste is stored at Sellafield. These facilities are designed to withstand severe weather and earthquakes. Surface storage does provide a safe interim option however it is not a permanent solution.
The surface stores around the UK whilst designed to be safe for around 100 years, they are not a permanent solution.
The facilities need to be monitored to keep it secure and also refurbished to prevent waste being exposed to the effects of weather. They rely on thousands of years of human intervention which is costly and unsustainable. This will be a continual burden for future generations.
Geological Disposal Facility is the UK and Welsh Governments’ policy to dispose of waste and also this was the recommendation of the Independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. We have the skills, expertise and technology to implement geological disposal now.
At present no country has a fully functioning Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) however Finland have began construction and its where disposal of waste from Finland’s nuclear programme will begin in 2024.
There are currently three other areas who are considering what hosting a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) would mean for them: Mid Copeland and South Copeland in Cumbria, and Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire.
The existence of these Community Partnerships is not an indication that a GDF will be built in one of these areas and there is still the potential for further communities to join the process of identifying a suitable site and a willing community.
A decision on a suitable site could take 10-15 years. It is assumed that a GDF could be available to receive the first waste in the 2050s. Operation and closure of a GDF will run into the next century.
Wherever a GDF ends up being built, the radioactive waste will be up to 1,000 metres underground in suitable geology, safely isolated and protected from glaciation or future human intervention, so that the radioactivity naturally decays and no longer poses a hazard to people or the environment. A GDF would therefore remove the requirement for future generations to take continuous care of today’s ‘higher level’ nuclear waste legacy.
Wider impacts on future generations are being investigated by the GDF developer, and as a Community Partnership we will also look into this as part of our independent impacts report due to be published in 2024.
Nuclear Waste Services are currently monitoring the housing market and developing a potential compensation scheme. Further information will be available in the near future.