Office for Nuclear Regulation

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Geological disposal

Geological disposal involves placing radioactive wastes deep within a suitable rock formation where the rock formation provides long-term protection by acting as a barrier against escape of radioactivity and by isolating the waste from effects at the surface such as climate change. There is no facility currently available in the UK.

ONR and the Environment Agency or Natural Resources Wales will regulate any future geological disposal facility (GDF) for radioactive waste in England or Wales. They will work together to ensure that any future facility meets the required high standards for environmental protection, safety, security, and radioactive waste transportation.

In October 2006, the Government accepted the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management’s (CoRWM) recommendations that:

ONR's position on geological disposal

Given the high hazard inventory of a GDF, the requirements of relevant EC Directives and international standards and good practice, ONR considers that a future GDF should be subject to the requirements of the Nuclear Installations Act (1965) during its design, construction, operation and closure, and regulated for nuclear safety and security purposes by ONR.  To enable this to be implemented:

Renewed process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility

On 24 July 2014, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published a renewed process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility. Implementing Geological Disposal outlines an approach based on working with interested communities, beginning with initial actions overseen by Government and RWM and intended to address issues that the public and stakeholders have expressed as important to them.

ONR supports the need for a Geological Disposal Facility as part of the Government's strategy and will engage with stakeholders as requested to explain our regulatory processes and how we will use them to assure the safety and security of any future facility.

In 2017, RWM published a set of safety case reports for a future GDF based on its understanding of the scientific and engineering principles supporting geological disposal. As a site for a GDF has not yet been identified,  the safety case is based on assumptions about possible geological settings, GDF concepts and designs. It is referred to as the 2016 generic Disposal System Safety Case (2016 gDSSC).

ONR and EA have assessed the 2016 gDSSC at the request of RWM, to provide scrutiny and advice on parts of its work ahead of any permit or licence application.

ONR's role

ONR, together with the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, provides advice and regulatory comment to Government, RWM, local authorities and stakeholders. ONR has no formal regulatory role in selecting a site for geological disposal, but will assist the process by advising and commenting on safety, security and transport matters, which would become important, should a formal regulatory role begin in the future. Although ONR has no direct role in the requirements for disposal, we do have a role in respect to the way that waste is stored prior to being disposed of. ONR has therefore worked with the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to produce joint guidance on the management of HAW on nuclear licensed sites, specifically to take account of the interaction between disposal requirements and the management of HAW prior to such disposal.

The geological disposal facility will be a nuclear installation under the Nuclear Installations Act (1965) and, as such, it will be ONR's role to grant a licence for the site, with attached site licence conditions, and then to enforce the requirements of that licence. ONR intends to attach the standard licence conditions to any license for a geological disposal facility although these will be reviewed to identify any necessary modifications specifically relating to a geological disposal facility.

ONR will also be responsible for assessing the safety and approving security arrangements for the disposal facility, and for securing compliance with those arrangements.

ONR will use Safety Assessment Principles (SAPs) and Security Assessment Principles (SyAPs), which provide inspectors with a framework for making consistent regulatory judgements on nuclear safety cases and security plans, as its standard for assessing the geological disposal facility. The SAPs and SyAPs are under constant review, and modifications will be made in relation to geological disposal, if necessary.

In addition to its formal regulatory role, ONR has a duty to provide advice to Government and others involved in the process of implementing the Government’s policy on radioactive waste management, and will continue to do so.