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 deep underground. It could potentially be three times deeper than the height of the Shard in London, Britain’s tallest building.
Once the waste is placed inside a GDF, the facility is permanently sealed. 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 fades away naturally.
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.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, the UK’s independent nuclear regulators, will review the designs for a GDF, the proposed site, and the science that informs them, to make sure it protects people and the environment. A GDF will only be built if it can meet these criteria.
Unlike other big infrastructure projects, the process of choosing a site for a GDF requires the explicit consent of a willing community.
Forming the GDF Working Group is not a commitment to agree to a GDF in Copeland. Neither is surveying potential sites or planning how the community could potentially benefit from the project. We can withdraw from the process at any time, for any reason.
A Working Group is formed early in the GDF siting process to begin local discussions and fact-finding with the community.
An early task for the Working Group will be to identify and propose a Search Area for further consideration. It will speak with citizens across the community to begin to understand any issues or questions they might have about geological disposal. The Working Group will also recruit initial members for a Community Partnership (see below) that may be established in due course to take the process further forward.
The Working Group comprises the four interested parties who originally raised an interest in the siting process: Copeland Borough Council, Irton Hall Ltd, GenR8 North Ltd and David Faulkner; as well as RWM, an independent facilitator and an independent chair.
Should there be continued interest in whether a GDF could be hosted in the Copeland area, a Community Partnership would be the larger, enduring group of people that would take over from the Working Group and consider the possibilities of local GDF siting in more detail, including further public engagement and creating a “Community Vision” for the long-term well-being of the community.
Formation of a Community Partnership would require the participation of RWM and at least one relevant Principal Local Authority for the area being considered. The Relevant Principal Local Authorities on the Community Partnership can agree to withdraw communities from the GDF siting process at any time.
The formation of a Community Partnership would signify the start of Community Investment Funding in the area. An initial sum of £1m per year would be made available, which could be used to fund projects, schemes and initiatives to drive the economic development of the area, improve the local environment, or the community’s wellbeing.
Community Investment Funding would rise to £2.5m per year if deep borehole investigations take place to assess geological suitability within the Search Area.
A GDF cannot be sited in any community which does not consent to it. If proposals to site a GDF in your community are taken forward by a Working Group and Community Partnership, you will be able to communicate your views on the proposals by:
Further on in the siting process, a Community Partnership will need to provide demonstrable evidence that its respective community supports the siting of a GDF in its area, via a Test of Public Support.
Yes. Finland has chosen a site where it plans to build a GDF, with the support of the local community there.
Posiva Oy, the Finnish version of RWM, chose Olkiluoto island as the site for their GDF in 2000. The majority of the local community was in favour of the project then, and support has actually grown as the project has developed.
SKB, the Swedish version of RWM, developed a consent-based approach before the UK. They committed to walk away from any community that did not support having a GDF built nearby. That helped communities to trust them and get involved in the conversation with confidence.
Read the latest update as Östhammar agrees to host a GDF, here.
Now that a Working Group has been formed in Copeland, we will seek to identify the initial ‘Search Area’. This is the geographical area or areas within which RWM will seek potentially suitable sites for a GDF. Our role is very much one of information gathering, ahead of a Community Partnership being formed.
A Community Partnership will include community members and organisations, seeking to be reflective of our local community. It will provide a vehicle for sharing information and for finding answers to the questions you might have about geological disposal, the siting process and how we, as a community, could benefit.
Once a Community Partnership has been formed, a series of local studies will be undertaken to assess which areas might be suitable to site a GDF. Once identified, boreholes would be drilled to examine the local geology and see if it may be suitable for a GDF.
Only once all studies have been conducted, and a community has given its consent, will the construction of the GDF begin.
The whole of the Borough of Copeland and adjacent inshore area up to 22km from the coastline is being considered, with the exclusion of the area within the boundary of the Lake District National Park and the proposed extension.
During initial discussions which took place prior to the formation of the Copeland GDF Working Group it was recognised that a proposal had been submitted to Natural England in 2019 for a southern extension to the Lake District National Park.
At launch the Copeland GDF Working Group said it would initially consider the whole of the Borough of Copeland and adjacent inshore area up to 22km from the coastline, with the exclusion of the area within the boundary of the Lake District National Park and any future extension.
The Working Group has subsequently recognised a need to clarify this statement on the proposed extension of the park and has confirmed that the area within the proposed extension is being excluded from further consideration.
As a result of this, the title of the original Initial Evaluation Report for this area, that pre-dated the formation of the Working Group, will be updated to remove an earlier reference to a named location within that area (Ghyll Scaur Quarry).
In the UK, we’ve benefited from nuclear technology for many decades. We’ve used nuclear technology to power our homes, radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat serious illnesses, and to drive industry for over 60 years. As a result, we’ve produced various different types of radioactive waste, including ‘higher-activity’ waste (the most radioactive kind).
West Cumbria is already home to Europe’s largest nuclear site at Sellafield which dates back to the late 1940s. In the early years of its operation, the focus was on producing material for the UK’s nuclear defence programme before the switch to generating electricity. More recently the site was used to reprocess spent fuel from the UK’s fleet of nuclear power stations; collectively this activity has created a legacy of radioactive waste and spent fuel that is still being stored onsite in surface facilities today.
Although radioactive waste is stored at other nuclear facilities around the country, the bulk of our radioactive waste is already at Sellafield. Its range of purpose-built stores were designed to keep this waste safe and secure for many decades. Nevertheless, these facilities require constant maintenance and monitoring while the radioactivity naturally decays. For some of the waste this will take many thousands of years, so even if well maintained, these surface stores will be vulnerable to natural and human events such as rising sea levels and even the next ice age.
A geological disposal facility (GDF) built up to 1,000 metres in the rock deep underground will contain the waste safely and isolate it from glaciation or future human intervention, until the radioactivity naturally decays and no longer poses a hazard to people or the environment. In essence, a GDF removes any requirement for our descendants to take perpetual care of today’s hazardous legacy. And of course, if a GDF ends up being built in West Cumbria this would also remove much of the requirement to transport radioactive waste over long distances.
There are absolutely no plans to consider existing or future coal mines for the geological disposal of radioactive waste, because they are simply not suitable.
Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) is responsible for developing a deep GDF in the UK, where higher-activity radioactive waste will be disposed of, based on consent from a willing community together with a suitable site.
A GDF will be a purpose-built, highly engineered facility designed specifically for radioactive waste. RWM will assess the suitability of any potential GDF location in a comprehensive evaluation process. The design and safety features must meet the stringent requirements of independent UK nuclear and environmental regulators. A coal mine would not meet these requirements.