‘Geological disposal’ means removing radioactive waste which will be harmful for many thousands of years, and which is currently stored in surface facilities, and placing it within a specially-designed facility up to 1km under the surface – the facility is called a Geological Disposal Facility, or GDF.
The waste is placed inside protective cement or steel packages, and these packages are then entombed deep underground in specialised vaults, where the mass of surrounding rock provides another barrier to the radioactivity as it decays over the millennia. This “russian doll” approach to placing the waste within multiple engineered and natural barriers is explained in a video by Radioactive Waste Management (RWM), which is the public body responsible for delivering the GDF in the UK. Similar information about geological disposal can be found from multiple international sources.
The international community has considered and explored many options, from blasting the waste into space to dumping it at sea. No other option seems to come close to geological disposal in terms of long-term safety for people and the environment. In the UK, successive Governments have relied on the advice from an independent committee experts, called the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM). CoRWM’s 2006 Report, which followed extensive public consultation, explains the variety of options assessed, and why geological disposal is currently considered the safest way to permanently dispose of our higher activity radioactive waste. RWM are obliged by CoRWM to regularly review the state of latest international science and knowledge, to ensure geological disposal remains the safest option – you can read RWM’s most recent 2017 Update Report here.
Successive Governments of all Parties have supported geological disposal policy. A Labour Government accepted CoRWM’s recommendations, re-affirming previous Governments’ support for geological disposal. Following the collapse in 2013 of discussions with communities in Cumbria, the then Coalition Government reviewed and updated their policy, publishing a White Paper in 2014. This policy has been subsequently reviewed and continued by two Conservative Governments.
In 2010 a Danish film-maker produced a documentary, Into Eternity, on the Finnish GDF and explored the issues around geological disposal. The film is an hour and twenty minutes long and can be found here on YouTube. If you want a quick summary of the film before deciding whether to sit down for 1.5 hours, check out this review from The Guardian newspaper.