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Radioactive waste management

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Radioactive waste management involves dealing safely with the long-lived wastes from processes involving radioactivity.

This waste can come from a number of sources. It ranges from paper towels used in hospitals to nitric acid solution from reprocessing nuclear fuel.

Radioactive waste is currently stored safely on site under licence from the Office for Nuclear Regulation. It is covered by strict regulatory control. Nuclear sites are under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 (NIA65). The disposal of radioactive waste from Wales’ three nuclear installations is subject to rigorous regulatory control.

Accumulation, use, management and storage of radioactive waste not on nuclear licensed sites is a devolved matter. So is the disposal of radioactive waste on or off nuclear licensed sites. These activities are regulated in Wales by Natural Resources Wales (external link).  

Accumulation, use, management and storage of radioactive waste on nuclear licensed sites are not devolved and are regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (external link)

What is radioactive waste

Under the International Atomic Energy Authority classification system, radioactive waste is classified into four categories:

  • High Level Waste (HLW) - also known as heat-generating waste, consists mainly concentrated liquid nitric acid product from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel
  • Intermediate Level Waste (ILW)  - consists mainly of metals, with smaller quantities of organic materials, inorganic sludges, cement, graphite, glass and ceramics. ILW mainly comes from the dismantling and reprocessing of spent fuel and from the general operation of nuclear plants
  • Low Level Waste (LLW) - includes metals (redundant equipment) and organic materials (laboratory equipment, clothing and paper towels). The organic materials mainly come from areas where radioactive materials are used e.g. hospitals and research establishments
  • Very Low Level Waste (VLLW) - covers waste with very low concentrations of radioactivity, and mainly comes from hospitals and non-nuclear industry.

Where does it go

Because VLLW contains very little radioactivity, it is safely disposed of by various means. This can be along with domestic waste at landfill sites or by incineration, depending on the nature and amount of the material. LLW is safely disposed of in containers inside a concrete vault.

Both ILW and HLW are currently stored until a long term solution is in place - that is, thousands of years while the radioactivity levels fall. ILW is contained in cement and put inside steel drums, which are then placed in an above-ground concrete store. HLW is concentrated by evaporation and stored inside double-walled stainless steel tanks inside thick concrete walls. A small quantity of liquid HLW is also immobilised in glass (vitrified), and by 2015 most of it will be in this form.

What stocks of waste are currently held in Wales

Existing stocks and forecast quantities of radioactive waste are normally published every three years in the UK Radioactive Waste Inventory (external link). The inventory is published jointly by the Department for Energy and Climate Change and UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. 

Higher activity radioactive wastes

Higher activity waste is the more radioactive waste that comes from sources such as the nuclear industry, military and medical uses and academic research. Higher activity waste comprises all 3 categories of waste (HLW,ILW and LLW).

Most higher activity radioactive waste is stored safely on major sites under licence from the Office for Nuclear Regulation and is subject to strict safety and environmental regulatory control.

Long-term management of higher activity radioactive waste

The Welsh Government has adopted a policy of geological disposal for the long-term, safe and secure management of higher activity radioactive waste. A geological disposal facility (GDF) will only be deliverable in Wales on the basis of a voluntary partnership with interested local communities willing to enter into discussions about potentially hosting a GDF and the successful conclusion of those discussions.

Our Policy on the Management and Disposal of Higher Activity Radioactive Waste outlines our policy following public consultation. Following a separate consultation, we have subsequently adopted a policy on the Community Engagement and Implementation Processes.

We are currently consulting on detailed proposals for engaging with communities in Wales that may wish to enter discussions with the delivery body, Radioactive Waste Management, about potentially hosting a geological disposal facility (GDF).  This Welsh Government consultation is being published in parallel with a separate consultation (external link) issued by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy on the arrangements for working with potential host communities in England and/or Northern Ireland. 

Radioactive Waste Management Limited (RWM)

Radioactive Waste Management Limited (RWM) is the public body appointed by the UK Government to find a suitable site, with a willing host community, for a GDF. RWM will be the delivery partner if a Welsh community does come forward. Find out more about RWM and GDF (external link).

Any geological disposal facility proposed in Wales would be considered through the planning system in Wales and would also need a nuclear site licence from the Office for Nuclear Regulation and an environmental permit from Natural Resources Wales.