Skip to content

Radioactive waste management

Related Links

Give us your views on proposals for a new policy on managing and disposing of higher activity radioactive waste.
Tell us if you want any of the documents on this page in an alternative format.

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.

Although the Welsh Government supports geological disposal, this does not necessarily mean a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) will be built in Wales or that the Welsh Government will seek to have a GDF built in Wales.  The Welsh Government has not considered or identified any potential sites or communities for a GDF in Wales, nor will it do so.  Our policy is very clear: a GDF can only be sited in Wales if a community is willing to host it. 

Our Policy on Geological disposal of higher activity radioactive waste: Working with communities  outlines  the engagement process for interested parties in Wales that may wish to enter discussions with the delivery body, Radioactive Waste Management (external link), about potentially hosting a GDF. The policy has been published following consultation and the publication of a seperate policy (external link) by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy on the arrangements for working with potential host communities in England.

Any possibility of a GDF in Wales would be dependent on interested parties seeking discussions with RWM about hosting a GDF.  If the interested party wanted to pursue their interest then they would need to enter into formal discussions and a Community Partnership would be formed to represent the wider community. These discussions could last for up to twenty years, during which time the Community Partnership could withdraw from the process at any time. Before a final decision about siting a GDF is taken, a Test of Public Support in a Potential Host Community would be required.

The development of a GDF in Wales would then depend on safety cases being made and accepted by the environmental protection regulator, Natural Resources Wales and by the Office for Nuclear Regulation, the nuclear safety regulator. Any GDF would also need approval through the planning system in Wales.

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.