UK: Consultation On The Disposal Of Low Level Radioactive Waste

On 5 June, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (the "NDA") published a consultation on its draft UK Strategy for the Management of Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste (the "LLW Strategy"). The NDA was tasked with formulating the LLW Strategy as part of the Government's Policy for the Long Term Management of Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste in the United Kingdom published on 26 March 2007 (the "LLW Policy"). The LLW Policy sets out a new framework for the flexible management of solid low level radioactive waste ("LLW") having regard to the diverse physical, chemical and radiological nature of LLW and the increasing volume of LLW arising from large scale decommissioning and nuclear site restoration in the UK.

The LLW Strategy is primarily aimed at nuclear industry waste producers (both existing and new build nuclear power stations), environment regulators and waste planning bodies, but is also relevant to non-nuclear industry waste producers, waste management facility operators and suppliers of waste treatment services, particularly in relation to opportunities to develop new LLW management routes.

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On 5 June, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (the "NDA") published a consultation on its draft UK Strategy for the Management of Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste (the "LLW Strategy"). The NDA was tasked with formulating the LLW Strategy as part of the Government's Policy for the Long Term Management of Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste in the United Kingdom published on 26 March 2007 (the "LLW Policy"). The LLW Policy sets out a new framework for the flexible management of solid low level radioactive waste ("LLW") having regard to the diverse physical, chemical and radiological nature of LLW and the increasing volume of LLW arising from large scale decommissioning and nuclear site restoration in the UK.

The LLW Strategy is primarily aimed at nuclear industry waste producers (both existing and new build nuclear power stations), environment regulators and waste planning bodies, but is also relevant to non-nuclear industry waste producers, waste management facility operators and suppliers of waste treatment services, particularly in relation to opportunities to develop new LLW management routes.

The LLW Strategy aims to:

  • facilitate continued hazard reduction and decommissioning through application of the waste management hierarchy
  • provide continued capability and capacity for the safe, secure and environmentally responsible management and disposal of LLW in the UK for both the nuclear and non-nuclear industries
  • provide value for money approaches to the management of LLW and
  • ensure the most advantageous use of the only dedicated engineered LLW facility in the UK: the Low Level Waste Repository (the "LLWR").

The LLW Strategy describes three strategic issues which are explored in more detail below. The NDA identifies actions to address these strategic issues which either it or its partners (including the LLW Repository Ltd) will take.

1. Application of the waste management hierarchy to extend the life of the LLWR and ensure waste is managed in a risk-based fit-for purpose manner

The LLW Strategy considers that a more rigorous application of the waste management hierarchy can be used in the nuclear sector to reduce the volume of LLW generated, and therefore extend the life of the LLWR. The waste management hierarchy is: (i) avoidance and characterisation; (ii) minimise, re-use and recycle; (iii) treatment; and (iv) optimised disposal.

For example, the LLW Strategy recommends that improved segregation and characterisation of LLW would lead to exempting a significant proportion of LLW from regulation under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 altogether, thereby reducing the overall LLW inventory in the UK. Identifying and separating out Very Low Level Waste ("VLLW") from the remainder of LLW would open up more appropriate management routes for VLLW, which does not necessarily require the multi-barrier engineered containment provided by the LLWR and would conserve the limited capacity at the LLWR. The NDA has identified a number of actions to improve characterisation and segregation, including providing incentives through pricing strategies at the LLWR and in NDA contracts where applicable.

2. Best use of existing assets

Currently, LLW is packaged in drum containers that are only licensed for a single transportation and VLLW is used to fill any void space. The NDA wants to promote waste compaction, encourage the use of reusable containers for transport of waste and use boxes to store waste rather than drums containers which will help preserve space in the LLWR.

3. New fit-for-purpose waste management routes - where else can LLW go?

The LLW Strategy looks to the private sector to develop new or expanded routes for the disposal of LLW and the NDA identifies that the following options should be considered on a case-by-case basis where regulatory / safety requirements are satisfied:

  • in-situ disposal
  • specified landfill or incineration - locally, regionally or nationally (e.g. VLLW)
  • on-site or adjacent to site disposal (e.g. decommissioning rubble) and
  • other near surface facilities - locally, regionally or nationally (e.g. alternatives to the LLWR).

The landfill or incineration route could be of particular interest to conventional waste management companies and the NDA is keen to support the supply chain developing these new management and disposal routes. A strategic environmental assessment was launched alongside and underpins the LLW Strategy. This delivered a favourable view on using landfill for VLLW and suitable LLW and concluded that this would not significantly affect remaining UK landfill capacity.

However, challenges do remain to developing new fit-for-purpose waste management routes. The relevant regulatory authorisations required are complex and may include the likes of environmental permits (this regime is likely to be expanded to include the current authorisation process under the Radioactive Substances Act) and planning permissions (involving a possibly contentious public consultation process). Helpfully, the Environment Agency has recently produced initial guidance on how such activities will be regulated and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency is due to publish Scottish guidance later this year. Additionally, potentially problematic issues remain to be clarified in relation to nuclear liability under the Nuclear Installations Act.

The deadline for responses to the draft LLW Strategy is 11 September 2009 and the NDA intends to issue a revised LLW Strategy for Government approval in early 2010.

This article was written for Law-Now, CMS Cameron McKenna's free online information service. To register for Law-Now, please go to www.law-now.com/law-now/mondaq

Law-Now information is for general purposes and guidance only. The information and opinions expressed in all Law-Now articles are not necessarily comprehensive and do not purport to give professional or legal advice. All Law-Now information relates to circumstances prevailing at the date of its original publication and may not have been updated to reflect subsequent developments.

The original publication date for this article was 17/06/2009.

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