The Environmental Case for Geological Disposal

The numbers are mind-boggling and overwhelming, but so is the logic.

Much of the waste will remain harmful for many hundreds of thousands of years, and some of it up to a million years! That’s longer than recorded human history.  Several ice ages are expected to come and go.  Societies will rise and fall.  Leaving this material permanently on the surface is simply not an option if we want to climate change-proof and future safety-proof the risk of our radioactive waste harming people.

Radioactive waste is currently stored at over 30 surface locations across the UK.  Exposed to climate change risks, requiring armed 24/7 security to protect against terrorists, each of the current storage facilities will need to be rebuilt and the waste extracted and replaced in new containers every 100 years or so.  Taking the waste from 30 surface sites across the country and placing all the waste in one deep underground repository makes eminent common sense, if we are to manage the environmental and health risks.

An easy-to-read summary of the options for disposal of radioactive waste and their environmental impact is contained within the original independent expert CoRWM Report, with a recent update on the alternative options by RWM.  Returning our waste deep underground still remains by far the safest known way to dispose of higher activity radioactive waste.  Future technology may help reduce the waste requiring disposal, but there is no escaping the fact that there will always be a residual amount of waste that needs disposing of permanently.

This is a contentious issue, which has conflicted many environmentalists.  Few disagree that there is a better environmental solution than geological disposal, though some environmental groups remain opposed to the Government’s plan for geological disposal.  Their primary concern is that the GDF “permits” the building of new nuclear power stations.

It is also important to remember that a GDF cannot be built unless two separate independent regulators approve the detailed plans and safety case.  In the UK the two regulators are the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Environment Agency  (EA) — in Wales, EA’s regulatory role is performed by Natural Resources Wales (NRW), in Scotland by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), and in N Ireland by the NI Environment Agency (NIEA).

There is also a very thought-provoking film, Into Eternity, about geological disposal.  Before you commit an hour and half of your life, you can get an initial summary and explanation of the film from this review in The Guardian newspaper.