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Geological disposal

In October 2006, the UK government accepted the Committee on Radioactive Waste Managements (CoRWM) recommendations that:

  • The UK's higher activity radioactive waste (HAW) should be managed in the long term through geological disposal; and
  • The continuing need for safe and secure interim storage until geological disposal is available.

Geological disposal involves placing radioactive wastes deep underground within a suitable rock formation. 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. In July 2014, the then Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published a renewed policy for Implementing Geological Disposal. 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 HAW in England or Wales. Scottish government policy does not support geological disposal. We will work with the relevant environmental regulator to ensure that any future facility meets the required high standards for safety, security, safeguards, radioactive waste transportation, and environmental protection.

ONR's role in siting a Geological Disposal Facility

We (ONR) have no decision making role in selecting a site for a GDF, but we will provide advice and comment on matters relating to safety, security, nuclear safeguards and transport. Together with the Environment Agency in England and Natural Resources Wales, we will provide advice and regulatory comment to government, Nuclear Waste Services (the implementer of government policy on geological disposal), local authorities, working groups and partnerships and other stakeholders.

Licensing and regulation of a Geological Disposal Facility

Given the high hazard inventory of a GDF, the requirements of relevant international standards and good practice, government considers that a future GDF should be regulated for nuclear safety and security purposes by ONR and subject to the requirements of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 during its design, construction, operation and transition to closure,  until the period of responsibility ends.

To enable this to be implemented we are working with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to enact necessary legislative amendments to add a GDF to the list of prescribed installations requiring a nuclear site licence.

We intend to attach the same set of standard licence conditions to any licence for a GDF although these will be reviewed to identify any necessary modifications specifically relating to a GDF. We will be responsible for assessing the safety and approving security arrangements for the facility, and for securing compliance with those arrangements once a nuclear site licence has been granted.

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

Regulatory advice relating to geological disposal

In advance of identification of a site for a GDF, we will continue to work with the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales to scrutinise Nuclear Waste Services work to implement geological disposal. Our work under the joint scrutiny programme is summarised in a series of annual reports. As regulators we provide advice on our respective regulatory remits to ensure that Nuclear Waste Services:

  • Develops the organisational capabilities needed to hold a nuclear site licence and environmental permits;
  • Takes full account of licensing and permitting requirements when applying to develop and operate a GDF; and
  • Provides appropriate advice to waste producers about how they should package HAW for future geological disposal.

In 2017, RWM (predecessor organisation to Nuclear Waste Services) 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).

Along with the Environment Agency we 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.

Although we have no direct role in the requirements for disposal, we do have a role in ensuring waste on nuclear sites is stored safely and securely until a GDF becomes available. Along with the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency we have produced joint guidance on the management of HAW on nuclear licensed sites.