The Future of Nuclear Waste: What’s the Plan and Can It Be Safe?

The process for creating such a facility is not simple. The organization responsible for delivering the GDF, which in the UK is Nuclear Waste Services (NWS), must not only overcome huge environmental and technical issues but also earn the public’s support.

Will All GDFs Look the Same?
Although generic design concepts do exist, each GDF will have unique aspects based on the size and constitution of the waste inventory and the geology of where it is installed. Every nation will tailor its GDF to its individual needs, under the scrutiny of regulators and the public.

Underpinning all GDFs, however, will be what is known as the multi-barrier concept. This combines man-made and natural barriers to isolate nuclear waste from the environment, and allow it to steadily decay.

The system for preparing high-level waste for storage in such a system will start with spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors. First, any uranium and plutonium that is still usable for future reactions will be recovered. The residual waste will then be dried and dispersed into a host glass, which is used because glass is tough, durable in groundwater and resistant to radiation. The molten glass will then be poured into a metal container and solidified, so that there are two layers of protection.

This packaged waste will then be surrounded by a backfill of clay or cement, which seals the excavated rock cavities and underground tunnel structures. Hundreds of meters of rock itself will act as the final layer of containment.

How Is the UK Program Going?
The UK GDF program is in its early stages. The siting process operates on a so-called volunteerism approach, in which communities can put themselves forward as potential sites to host the facility. At present, a working group (Theddlethorpe, Lincolnshire) and three community partnerships (Allerdale, Mid Copeland and South Copeland in Cumbria) have formed. Whilst working groups are at earlier stages of the siting process, the next steps for community partnerships are to begin more extensive geological surveys, followed by drilling boreholes to assess the underlying rock.

Public support is the basis of the entire GDF program. While some nations may take a more heavy-handed approach and choose a site regardless of public support, the UK GDF mission has community and stakeholder engagement at its core.

Why would residents volunteer? This is a 100+ year project that will require a lot of people working very close by. At the community partnership stage, an investment of up to £2.5million per year, per community, is expected.

The UK program is some way behind certain other nations. The world leader is Finland, which has almost finished the world’s first GDF at Onkalo, several hundred kilometers west of Helsinki. Preferred sites for GDFs have also been selected in the US, Sweden and France.

The UK government aims to identify a suitable site within the next 15-20 years, after which construction can start. The timescale from siting to closing and sealing the first UK GDF is 100 years, making this the largest UK infrastructure project ever. The technology to deliver the GDF is ready; all that remains is to find a willing community with a suitable geology.

Is There Another Way?
It is the scientific consensus, internationally, that the GDF approach is the most technically feasible way to permanently dispose of nuclear waste. Onkalo is an example to the world that scientific collaboration and open engagement with the public can make safe disposal of nuclear waste possible.

The only other approach that has received any traction is the deep borehole disposal (DBD) concept. At face value, this is not too dissimilar from a GDF approach; drilling boreholes much deeper than a GDF would be (up to several kilometers) and putting waste packages at the bottom. Countries such as Norway are considering this approach.

Lewis Blackburn is EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow in Materials Science, University of Sheffield. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.