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Comment: Taking a lead in nuclear waste disposal

Chris Macey, service lead for Treatment and Conditioning Services at Nuclear Waste Services (NWS), reveals how his team is safely diverting huge quantities of nuclear waste away from permanent disposal at the UK’s Low Level Waste (LLW) Repository in Cumbria.

Top duct in transit
Top duct in transit - NWS

This has been achieved through a range of characterisation and treatment services, ensuring that only wastes which require the protection of an engineered vault are disposed of at the Repository site. In 2022 to 2023, 1689te of metallic waste was treated, 98 per cent of that waste was released for recycling and diverted from the Repository.

I’ve been working in the waste services team at Nuclear Waste Services for two years now, but we’ve been running our treatment services for about 15 years. When LLW Repository Ltd was set up, part of the mission was to look after the capacity of the engineered vaults where low level radioactive waste is safely, and permanently disposed. We’ve achieved this, and much more. Transformative work undertaken over the last 15 years has enabled monumental cost savings to the taxpayer and provided environmental benefits with huge amounts of nuclear waste being recycled and CO₂ production avoided. In 2008, a suite of waste treatment services and alternative disposal methods, which were more sustainable, environmentally friendly and cost efficient, were introduced. In parallel, the National Waste Programme was launched to coordinate the initiative (now superseded by the Integrated Waste Management Programme).

This work, fuelled by innovation, collaboration across the NDA group and industry, and the use of new technologies, means that the UK’s Low Level Waste Repository (LLWR) in Cumbria won’t reach capacity as quickly, saving nearly £870m of taxpayer money and supporting the circular economy by recycling waste. This is due to waste being diverted away from the Repository and its engineered disposal vaults with the introduction of the treatment services and alternative disposal methods.

The UK creates a wide range of hazardous wastes generated by the nuclear industry, ranging from Very Low-Level Waste (VLLW), for example lightly contaminated rubble, all the way up to Higher Activity Waste (HAW), that originates from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. All of this hazardous waste needs to be managed safely and securely, both now and for the future. More than 90 per cent of the UK’s radioactive waste is Low Level Waste, so our services to safely manage and dispose of this waste are of vital, national importance, as we work to clean up the UK’s nuclear legacy.

The creation of a centralised waste services division to provide and manage a ‘One-stop-shop’ for all UK radioactive waste customers has led the way in developing and offering services to the industry. Services which take advantage of alternative waste management routes demonstrating real application of the waste hierarchy and processing wastes sooner into their final safe state.

This work has been a total gamechanger for the Repository.  We’ve totally flipped our stats for how much waste goes into our vaults for final disposal, and how much waste is diverted and recycled. We now only dispose of around two per cent of low-level waste into the vaults, which is an excellent step forward. We used to dispose of around 95 per cent of the waste we managed into the vaults, so they would have filled up in a very short space of time. So, how are we doing this? Through incineration, sending lower activity waste to permitted landfill, super-compaction and metal decontamination for recycling.  All of these treatment and disposal methods come at a lower cost than placing the waste in our vaults.

Firstly, our route to permitted landfill sites which take the very low activity waste. This waste doesn’t need the engineered controls we have at the Repository site, and it doesn’t need any treatment. The waste can just go to normal landfill sites that are permitted by the Environment Agency (EA) to accept it. This is the largest amount of waste we generate as a nuclear industry.

Next, we can burn some of the waste in specialised incinerators. The resulting ashes can go to landfill, equating to 100 per cent diversion from the vault. The incineration not only destroys the hazardous nature of waste but reduces the waste volume. 


Another of our treatments is super-compaction, which is a volume reduction technique. This sees drums of waste being literally squashed and compacted into small pucks meaning we can place a lot more waste into a container, a highly effective space-saving treatment method.

The final service is the most environmentally friendly and sustainable process - metallic treatment.  We work with our suppliers who use a range of special technologies to clear the radioactivity off a range of metals that can be reused and recycled.

The waste will only head to the vaults if it can’t follow one of these routes, if the radioactivity levels are too high or it just can’t be treated.  Our services line of business is making a huge difference to decommissioning work. Whilst safety is always our number one priority in everything we do, as we move forward our work is becoming more efficient, more sustainable and is saving money through innovations.

Through our ambition and action-oriented nature, we collaborate with customers and the supply chain to make nuclear waste permanently safe, sooner. As decommissioning activity increases across the UK nuclear industry this work is more important than ever.

Chris Macey, service lead for Treatment and Conditioning Services at Nuclear Waste Services