Cavern club: is deep geological disposal the best option for nuclear waste?

Senior Reporter

Around 30 per cent of Britain might be geologically suitable for a nuclear disposal facility, but towns around the UK aren’t lining up to host it.

Earlier this week I attended a press conference hosted by Radioactive Waste Management (RWM), the company set up by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) last year to deliver a ‘geological disposal facility’ for the UK. This facility will essentially be a massive complex of caverns, between 200m and 1000m below ground, where the most potent radioactive waste will be permanently buried while it degrades over many thousands of years. To give that some context, the deepest part of the London Undergound system is about 65m deep.

On the surface will be a site approximately 1km2, where nuclear waste from all over the UK will be delivered by rail and stored temporarily before reaching its subterranean tomb. The estimated cost of building the entire facility is £4bn, with the lifetime cost of the project – over the next 150 years or so – pegged at around £12bn. Once filled, the underground facility will be sealed up and perhaps eventually even forgotten about over the coming millennia.

Alun Ellis, science and technology director at RWM, said that up to 30 per cent of the UK might be geologically suitable for the disposal facility. Unsurprisingly though, towns around the UK aren’t exactly lining up to host it. Despite the search going on since the 1980s, the NDA/RWM is still pursuing a voluntary approach, where agreeing to site the facility would be rewarded with financial packages, infrastructure investment, and the promise of long-term local employment. 

A deal was almost agreed two years ago with councils in west Cumbria, near to where Sellafield already employs in the region of 10,000 people, and where large amounts of nuclear waste are already stored. Talks ultimately stalled however, leaving no current candidate sites for the facility.

Similar projects in Sweden and Finland are already under construction, where multiple towns bid for the right to host the facility and gain from the boost to the local economy. One might ask why the same levels of enthusiasm have not been seen in the UK, and if more needs to be done to address the nuclear perception problem.  One might just as easily ask if a voluntary approach is ever likely to work in the UK, and if independent assessors should just decide on the most appropriate location. The addition of nuclear waste storage to nationally significant infrastructure projects in England could see to this. 

The waste can and is being stored relatively safely at ground level, and can continue to be stored in this way for the short-term. But the short-term for humans and for high-level nuclear waste are two very different things, and plans for the latter need to look a long way into the future. In the end, a permanent solution needs to be found. At the moment, geographical disposal facilities appear to be the best bet, but in our poll yesterday we offered up a number of alternative solutions. Let us know how you’d feel about the facility being located in your vicinity, and if you feel there any better ideas for the long-term problem of nuclear waste.