A Geological Disposal Facility, or GDF, is an underground facility designed to safely and securely dispose of our radioactive waste – specifically ‘higher-activity’ waste (the most radioactive kind).
It involves building a series of specially designed and engineered vaults and tunnels up to 1,000 metres below ground in a suitable rock formation. It could potentially be as deep as Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, is high. Combined with engineered barriers, this will protect the environment by keeping the waste isolated from the surface while the radioactivity naturally reduces to safe levels.
The way the facility is designed and engineered means it can keep protecting people and the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, without needing any maintenance, while the radioactivity decays naturally.
In 2006, The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), an organisation that provides independent scrutiny and transparent advice to the UK governments on the long-term management of higher activity radioactive wastes, published an appraisal of the technical options for managing the UK’s radioactive waste, taking into account ethical considerations, an examination of overseas experience and a wide-ranging programme of engagement with both the public and interested parties / stakeholders.
It was concluded that, within the present state of knowledge, a Geological Disposal Facility – disposal of radioactive waste in a purpose built facility between 200-1000m underground, with no intention to retrieve the waste once the facility is closed – to be the best available approach. In 2018, CoRWM confirmed this position in its Position Paper Why Geological Disposal?.
Alternatives to geological disposal are continually being carefully considered, for example, CoRWM recently published a Position Paper on deep borehole disposal. At present, other alternatives are all either not technically achievable (for example: converting the waste to non-radioactive material), not environmentally safe (disposal at sea or in ice sheets), or too dangerous to implement (firing the waste into space on rockets).
Scientists and other authorities all over the world agree that geological disposal is the safest way to deal with ‘higher-activity’ radioactive waste (the most radioactive kind) for the long term. This international consensus comes after decades of scientific research.
To demonstrate how a GDF meets the UK’s high standards of safety, security and environmental protection throughout the lifetime of the facility, the GDF developer, Nuclear Waste Services (NWS), will need to develop and maintain a number of safety cases (including operational safety, environmental safety and transport) and security plans, all of which will be subject to scrutiny by the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, the UK’s independent nuclear regulators. A GDF will only be built if it can meet all of the requirements of the regulators.
Radioactive waste is radioactive material for which there is no further use. Most comes from the nuclear power generation, but it is also a by-product of many medical and industrial processes and research and defence activities that make use of radioactivity and radioactive matter.
The specific types of higher activity radioactive waste (and nuclear materials that could be declared as waste) which would comprise the inventory for disposal in a GDF are:
Radioactive wastes that will be disposed of in a GDF are currently being packaged in specially engineered containers and stored above ground at over 20 nuclear sites around the country. Currently, the bulk of the UK’s radioactive waste is stored above ground at Sellafield in Cumbria.
Surface stores, whilst designed to be safe for around 100 years, do not provide a permanent solution. They need to be continually monitored to keep the waste secure and periodically refurbished while the radioactivity naturally decays. For some of the waste this will take many thousands of years, so even if well maintained, eventually, the surface stores will need to be replaced, or the waste moved elsewhere. Surface storage is also vulnerable to natural and human effects.
The UK Government believes that constructing a GDF demonstrates a commitment to ensure our radioactive waste is safely and securely dealt with. It is a long-term environmental endeavour that is the right thing to do for today’s society and for future generations, by removing the burden of having to constantly maintain perpetual surface storage. It is clear that storage is safe now and can be kept safe for the foreseeable future but that this requires considerable ongoing effort, security and expenditure and carries the ongoing risks associated with having to repackage waste due to surface facility maintenance or as storage facilities need to be replaced.
Geological disposal is internationally recognised as the best and safest option for managing longer-lived, more hazardous radioactive waste, following decades of science, technology and engineering research. A number of countries, including Sweden, Finland, France, Canada and Switzerland, have already implemented or are developing plans for this process. Among the most advanced is Finland which started constructing a GDF for spent nuclear fuel, called ‘Onkalo’, five years ago. In Sweden, a site at Forsmark has been identified following support by two communities, Osthammar and Oskarshamm. France has also identified a suitable site. Its waste management organisation, ANDRA, is preparing to submit applications for the Cigeo industrial geological disposal facility, located in the east of the country.
Construction will only start when a suitable site is identified, a host community has confirmed its willingness to host the facility through a Test of Public Support, safety for people and the environment has been assured by The Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, and all the necessary consents and permits have been obtained.
These initial local studies will improve our understanding of the potential for finding a site for a GDF within each search area and feed into NWS’ consideration of whether an area should move forward to the borehole drilling phase of the siting process.
Studies may take around 2-3 years and will look at a range of topics which have taken into consideration community feedback gathered since the formation of the Community Partnership.
The work will include looking at issues such as geology, labour & skills, local power supply and transport. Another study is accessways – which looks at potential options for underground tunnels linking a surface site to an underground facility.
A Marine Geophysical Survey took place off the coast of Mid and South Copeland between July and August 2022 to deepen understanding about the nature of the deep rocks beyond the coast. The GDF developer also purchased existing seismic data for other search areas on both East and West Coast locations as a cost-effective way to get initial information on local geology. Results on this are expected to be shared later in 2023. Further information on the Marine Geophysical Survey is available here.
The Government’s policy, Implementing Geological Disposal – Working with Communities, is clear that, before NWS seeks regulatory approval or development consent to begin construction of a GDF, there must be a Test of Public Support to determine whether the Potential Host Community is willing to host a GDF. If the result of the Test of Public Support is in support, the developer may then make the statutory regulatory and development consent applications required to build a GDF at the selected site. If the result is against, a GDF will not be built at this location.
No. There are currently four Community Partnership Search Areas considering what hosting a GDF would mean for them: South Copeland, Mid Copeland and Allerdale in Cumbria, and Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire. The existence of these Community Partnerships is not an indication that a GDF will be built in one of these areas and there is still the potential for further communities to join the process of identifying a suitable site and a willing community.
Cumberland Council can withdraw the community from the siting process at any point up until a Test of Public Support is taken. The decision on whether to withdraw will be taken by the relevant principal local authorities on the Community Partnership; in the case of South Copeland, this is Cumberland Council. NWS can also choose to withdraw from the process. For example, there may be technical reasons which demonstrate that there is no longer the prospect of finding a suitable site within the Search Area.
A decision on a suitable site could take 10-15 years. It is assumed that a GDF could be available to receive the first waste in the 2050s. Operation and closure of a GDF will run into the next century.
The process of identifying and selecting a site for a GDF requires detailed technical work that takes a long time. More detail on this is set out in Chapter 4 of the Implementing Geological Disposal – Working with Communities Policy.
In addition, time is needed to build an understanding of what hosting a GDF would mean for the community. The community needs access to all the information in order to make an informed decision.
A Community Partnership is a group made up of members including the GDF developer, the local authority and community members. A Community Partnership’s role includes ensuring the community has the information they need when considering the possibility of hosting a GDF. An outline of the full role and key responsibilities of a Community Partnership can be found in the Implementing Geological Disposal – Working with Communities policy. Further information the South Copeland GDF Community Partnership’s membership and the Members Approach can be found here.
Yes. See ‘How can I get involved?’ below.
Yes, the meetings are held in public and the agenda for each will be published on the website one week prior to the meeting – if you cannot access the agenda online, or require it in an alternative format, please contact us. Members of the public can attend to observe the formal meeting and there will be a 15 minute slot on the agenda for anyone who would like to submit a question in advance or ask in person.
Submitted questions will be answered during the meeting and a copy of the answer will be sent to the requester if consent to contact them is provided. If you would like to submit a question in advance, you can do so by clicking on a specific meeting on our Events page.
If a question cannot be answered during the meeting, it will be taken away and answered after the meeting. If you would like a direct response to your question, we require that you provide your name and contact details. All questions will be documented in the draft minutes.
The minutes of the meeting will be published after they are approved at the following month’s meeting on the Community Partnership webpage. We ask that no recording devices are used during the meeting.
This Community Partnership is for the South Copeland Search Area – which comprises the electoral divisions of Millom and Millom Without.
No areas which fall within the Lake District National Park or 2019 extension proposal will be considered to host a GDF.
A GDF has to be built deep underground, in suitable geology. The rock, along with engineered barriers, play an important part in keeping people and the environment safe whilst the waste naturally becomes less radioactive.
The Copeland GDF Working Group recommended that the investigation initially focuses on the deep geology within the inshore area up to 22km beyond the coast.
Further information can be found in the Finding a suitable site page.
Nuclear Transport Solutions would manage getting the nuclear waste to the GDF. They are a fully licensed and vetted operator with 27 years’ experience and a 100% safety record. Transport is one of the studies currently taking place in South Copeland by the GDF developer. Additionally, the Community Partnership intends for this to be one of the topics investigated in the independent report into the impacts of a GDF that it aims to commission in 2023.
Wherever a GDF ends up being built, the radioactive waste will be up to 1,000 metres underground in suitable geology, safely isolated and protected from glaciation or future human intervention, so that the radioactivity naturally decays and no longer poses a hazard to people or the environment. A GDF would therefore remove the requirement for future generations to take continuous care of today’s ‘higher level’ nuclear waste legacy.
Wider impacts on future generations are being investigated by the GDF developer, and as a Community Partnership we will also look into this as part of our independent impacts report due to be published in 2024.
The GDF developer, Nuclear Waste Services, recently released Creating Jobs and Skills: A First Look Report. Whilst this is a top-level, national report, and it is too early in the process to talk in detail about what could happen if the GDF was sited here specifically, there are a number of positive possibilities that have been highlighted in this initial report, including training and education, new skills development, job diversity, local investment, and business development. There are also potential negative implications which need to be investigated and considered.
The Community Partnership expects further, localised, detail in due course which we will share with you. As a Community Partnership, we are also commissioning our own independent community impacts report due to be published in Spring 2024. We will work with the GDF developer to develop a local vision for the area to determine the type of investment local people would want should a GDF be located here.
A key role of the Community Partnership is identifying information that people in the community want or need, being the key vehicle for community dialogue with the developer and agreeing a programme of activities to develop understanding about the process and potential implications of hosting a GDF. We expect many of the answers to these questions to be answered by the GDF developer as their investigations progress. However, as part of our work as a Community Partnership, we are able to commission reports and research on specific topics from independent experts and we are currently developing a commission for exactly that in relation to potential impacts of a GDF in this area, which we aim to publish by Spring 2024.
Nuclear Waste Services are currently monitoring the housing market and developing a potential compensation scheme. Further information will be available in the near future.
A GDF will be open and taking in waste for well over 100 years, so the end point for this is still a long way in the future. Throughout this operating lifetime, if there were compelling reasons to remove any wastes from the facility, then this could be done. Eventually, a GDF will be closed and sealed. This is internationally accepted as the safest and most secure option to minimise burden on future generations. A GDF is based on a concept known as passive safety – meaning the system is designed to evolve without human intervention and remain safe and secure.
A GDF cannot be built in any community which does not consent to it. A decision on a suitable site could take 10-15 years and at this stage there will then need to be demonstrable evidence that the Potential Host Community supports the siting of a GDF in its area via a Test of Public Support. You can read about this in the Implementing Geological Disposal – Working with Communities policy.
During the potentially long-term siting process there will be plenty of opportunities to share your views and ask questions. You can attend our public Community Partnership meetings and events, connect with us on our social media channels, sign up to receive our monthly e-bulletin and get in touch with the Contact Centre by phone, email or post.
You can also invite us along to discuss geological disposal at your meeting or event.
Throughout this process, we will be intermittently surveying residents in the Search Area about their awareness of the Community Partnership and Geological Disposal. These surveys will allow us to gain a measure of awareness, understanding and support of a GDF across the Search Area.
This is an open conversation and we want to hear your views. Further information can be found on the Get involved page.
We are continuing to look for new members in the sectors of Agriculture, Business, Tourism, Seldom heard and Youth. If you are interested in joining us, please click here.
Recruitment is currently open-ended and membership will continue to evolve as the Community Partnership progresses.
Community Investment Funding (CIF) of up to £1 million has been made available for the South Copeland GDF Community Partnership as it participates in the siting process for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). This will rise to £2.5 million annually in communities progressed to deep borehole investigations to assess the geological suitability of a site. The grants can be used to fund projects, schemes or initiatives benefiting the Search Area that:
The GDF may never be sited in South Copeland, but we are encouraging local people to take advantage of the benefit of being a part of the long-term siting process.
For further information and how to apply, please visit our Community Investment Funding webpage.