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GDFs and retrievability: what is the UK’s position?

April 5, 2024

“Retrievability” is often a word that comes up in discussions on geological disposal.  When looking at Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) programmes in the UK and abroad, an apparent difference is the extent to which the option of ‘retrievability’ of radioactive waste is featured in plans. The UK position is outlined below.

UK Government Position  

The UK Government’s position on “retrievability” is set out in its policy, Implementing Geological Disposal – Working with Communities.  The relevant paragraphs are as follows:

3.19              The UK Government and regulators agree that the purpose of a GDF is to dispose of waste, not store it.

3.20              During the Operational stage of a GDF (when waste is being accepted), waste that has been placed into a GDF could be retrieved if there was a compelling reason to do so.  Current NWS forecasts show that a GDF could be open for construction and waste emplacement for around one hundred years, to accommodate the current volume of legacy waste.  Retrieving emplaced waste would tend to become more difficult with time, particularly after the end of its operational stage (that is, once a GDF has been closed permanently).

3.21              Permanently closing a GDF at the earliest possible opportunity once operations have ceased provides for greater safety, greater security, and minimises the burden on future generations.


Environment Agency (EA)

EA guidance can be found at: Geological disposal facilities on land for solid radioactive wastes – GOV.UK (

It states that:

  • We do not require the waste to be retrievable after the act of disposal;
  • If a developer/operator makes provisions for retrievability, these should not unacceptably affect the environmental safety case.


The Office of the Nuclear Regulator (ONR)

The ONR guidance can be found here: ns-tast-gd-101.docx

It articulates the ONR position in that any retrievals post disposal must be shown to be optimised or ALARP (As Low As is Reasonably Practicable ) in terms of risk. It is the overall position that must be optimised to be ALARP; not only the activity itself but there would also need to be somewhere safe to put the retrieved waste and a plan to deal with it so that any ongoing risks to safety (plus security and safeguards) can be adequately controlled. Whilst in operation, the GDF will be subject to the requirements of the site licence and any retrieval of waste would need to be supported by an adequate safety case underpinning that activity and the potential permissions prior to the activity commencing.


The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM)

 CoRWM – the independent advisors to the Government on the long-term management of higher activity radioactive wastes – have stated their position on this topic, which can be found at: