UK deep waste developer must expand industry talks to avoid delays

The UK’s new consent-based siting process for a geological disposal facility (GDF) for nuclear waste must be supplemented with appropriate funding support and industry collaboration to fill supply chain gaps and control costs, waste experts said.

The UK has fallen behind European neighbors on the long-term storage of spent fuel and other high-level waste. (Image credit: NRC)

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In January, the UK energy ministry launched two public consultations for the siting of the U.K.'s first geological disposal facility (GDF), reinvigorating the country's quest to build its first long-term nuclear waste facility. The move came a month after the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC) suggested the UK could implement plans for commissioning and operating a GDF facility by 2030.

Steered by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the first public consultation, ‘Working with communities,’ will see the state-owned GDF developer Radioactive Waste Management Ltd (RWM) gather public opinion in areas interested in hosting a new underground facility. The second consultation will scrutinize whether the National Policy Statement (NPS) provides an effective GDF planning framework. Both consultations run until late-April.

There are over 70,000 packages of higher activity radioactive waste (HAW) stored at ground-level sites across the UK. By 2125, the UK will have produced a packaged volume of around 450,500 cubic metres of HAW, according to the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

For decades, the UK has sought a GDF site. The latest attempt stalled in 2013 when two Cumbrian communities interested in hosting a facility failed to gain backing from local councils. Cumbria, a region in North-West England, already hosts several large nuclear complexes but council representatives cited concerns over the geological suitability of the region for a deep waste facility.

International success with consent-based engagement in Finland and Sweden has boosted confidence in the U.K.'s plans, Juliet Long, Head of Radioactive Substances Legacy and Waste Issues at the U.K.'s Environment Agency, said.

“The government has taken the time to look at international models and to reflect that in its latest policy development," she said.

International learnings

In December 2016, Posiva began construction of the world's first permanent underground nuclear waste storage facility, on Olkiluoto island, Finland.

The Finnish Government granted Posiva a construction license in November 2015, after a lengthy site search beginning in 1983. The 6,500-tonne final disposal facility will consist of an above-ground encapsulation plant, where spent fuel will be dried and packed into final disposal canisters made of copper and cast-iron, and a repository consisting of a network of tunnels deep inside the bedrock.

After a long public consultation starting from around 100 potential sites, only the existing nuclear power plant sites at Loviisa and Olkiluoto were shortlisted for the final siting decision.

Unlike in Finland, where no direct incentives were offered to host communities, the UK government plans to provide funding to local communities active in the early stages of the siting process. Communities will each receive up to 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) per year in the early stages, rising to 2.5 million pounds per year for communities that progress to intrusive borehole investigations to assess a potential site.

Job creation is also a crucial incentive. A new GDF facility would create up to 2,000 well-paid, skilled jobs, and provide an 8 billion-pound boost to the UK economy over the lifetime of the facility, according to BEIS.

             Gross Value Added by UK nuclear sector by region (2016)

                                                          (Click image to enlarge)

Source: NIA, ONS, Oxford Economics

The RWM has already had positive responses from multiple locations across the country, including Cumbria, which already hosts several nuclear power generation and defence sites including Sellafield, where 80% of the UK’s HAW is believed to be stored, Devonshire Dock Complex, the Metals Recycling Facility at Lillyhall, the Low-Level Waste (LLW) Repository at Drigg, In addition, Nugen hopes to build a 10 billion-pound nuclear power plant at Moorside, near Sellafield.

                       UK nuclear sites monitored by ONR

                                (Click image to enlarge for England & Wales)

Source: UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). To see a larger version of the entire UK map, see ONR's website.

Education and sufficient time are key to a successful consultation process, Long said.

“We need to give communities time to develop their understanding and confidence and that’s a real challenge. Really allowing communities to understand that geological disposal of radioactive waste is an issue which takes place safely, daily,” she said.

Funding challenges

Funding support will prove critical in achieving the NICs 2030 target for the GDF process, according to Eden Nuclear and Environment, which has provided technical support on waste disposal to the RWM for the GDF and the U.K.'s LLW Repository Ltd. The lifetime cost of the GDF facility is estimated at between 12 billion and 20 billion pounds over a 150 year-period, according to RWM.

The NIC’s 2030 target can be met “if the technical programme is appropriately financed and there is a commitment to pursuing it in a timely way,” Andy Baker, Managing Director of Eden Nuclear and Environment, said.

“Given the risks involved in siting and delivering a GDF, long-term finance can only be provided by government,” he said.

While more advanced programs in other countries such as Finland and Sweden will provide industrial learnings, there is still a "limited international track record" of these projects, Baker noted.

According to media reports, the government may be willing to fund 55% of facility costs and require nuclear new-build owners to fund 35% with the final 10% covered by a liability fund set aside by previous nuclear operators.

Design input

The design of a GDF facility will depend on local site characteristics and cost considerations.

“A safe final repository is a combination of the engineering, geology and management arrangements in place, so until we have a site we won’t know what the particular design aspects will need to be," Long noted.

The EA has been working with RWM on a variety of design scenarios, she said.

Baker noted that the RWM program has "historically focussed on one Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) disposal solution-- vaults in hard rock with a cementitious backfill."

Importantly, tunnel boring and mining expertise are depleted skills in the UK, which must be factored into design plans and budgets.

In Finland, early transfer of responsibility to operators has enabled fast and pragmatic decision-making across the value-chain.

Thus far, the UK nuclear industry has been less involved in GDF plans. The EA has called for more engagement from operators and supply chain stakeholders to ensure an efficient GDF development process.

The nuclear industry needs reassurance the GDF siting and approval process will be successful so it can take appropriate planning decisions on packaging and waste transportation, Baker said.

“That means that waste can be treated, packaged and stored in a way that is compatible with the planned disposal route,” he said.

A lack of progress in the deep geological facility program in recent years has reduced the specialist skill base, Baker noted.

“The national deep geological program was very active up to the mid-1990s and significant skill base was developed in national agencies and their contractors. That resource has been somewhat dissipated, and it is now important that we build a capable resource to undertake the technical components of the project,” he said.

By Kerry Chamberlain