According to a 2013 inventory report from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the body responsible for the clean-up of the UK’s nuclear legacy, the UK has to manage 4.5 million cubic metres (4.9m tonnes) of radioactive nuclear waste – enough to fill Wembley Stadium four times over.
This figure is the total volume of radioactive waste that exists today or is forecast to be generated over the next century from existing facilities. Around 4.3 million cubic metres (96%) of this waste has already been produced.
The other 4% (around 160,000 cubic metres) of radioactive waste has yet to be produced.
This includes waste forecast from planned operations of existing nuclear power facilities, from ongoing defence programmes and from the continued use of radioactive material for medical and industrial purposes.
In the long term, high-level radioactive waste (HLW) will need to be stored in a geological underground repository, but this isn’t estimated to be ready until 2040. The process has already seen many delays, meaning the actual date could be much later.
Via an interactive map, discover where this nuclear waste is produced, contained, transported and stored across the UK.
Where nuclear waste is produced
Much of the UK’s nuclear waste has been produced as a consequence of research and development of nuclear technology, which started in the 1940s. Presently, however, most of the UK’s radioactive nuclear waste is generated from nine nuclear power stations that produce around one fifth of the country’s electricity. Much of this waste – 78.3% – is produced from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel at the Sellafield nuclear complex located in Cumbria. In Scotland most nuclear waste comes from Dounreay, a former centre of fast reactor research.
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Nuclear power reactors create 16.4% of nuclear waste in the UK. Nuclear energy research and development creates 4% of this waste, while the medical and other industries create 1%, the defence industry also creates 1% and fuel fabrication and uranium enrichment creates 5.4%.
Containing nuclear waste
Radioactive waste is stored in containers to ensure it is completely immobile. The process of packaging converts the waste into a solid, stable, passively safe form that is kept within high integrity stainless steel or concrete containers. Packing for each level of waste is different.
Low-level waste (LLW), for example, must be super compacted to minimise its volume. Waste is placed in large metal containers, similar to shipping containers, and placed in concrete-lined vaults.
Packaging for intermediate-level waste (ILW) involves encapsulation in cement-based materials within 500 litre stainless steel drums or 3m3 stainless steel boxes. Large items are packaged in higher capacity stainless steel or concrete boxes.
High-level liquid waste is incorporated into borosilicate glass, using a process called vitrification, and then poured into stainless steel canisters, which hold approximately
150 litres. A stainless steel lid is then welded on.
Currently, there are a number of intermediate-level waste packaging plants operating at Sellafield. These plants package a variety of solid wastes from spent fuel reprocessing. ILW packaging plants are also operating at Dounreay, Harwell, Trawsfynydd and Windscale. Further packaging plants are being built and planned as part of the NDA’s forward programme.
How is nuclear waste transported?
As nuclear waste is stored mainly at Sellafield, it is necessary for it to be transported from the power stations and other site it is created via train or road. This means the packaged waste must travel, for example, from Dungeness in the far south of the country to the Sellafield in the Midlands over a distance of some 400 miles.
According to the Magnox Operating Programme (MOP), run by the NDA, the rate of fuel transportation approximately matches the rate of reprocessing.
Transport routes are not officially published for security reasons but, according to a campaign by Greenpeace, which says the transportation of this waste by train poses a terrorist attack risk, there are over 1,000 transports carried out throughout the year.
The environmental group says weekly trains carry spent fuel from each of the UK’s nuclear reactors to Sellafield for reprocessing. The main routes, according to the group, who independently tracked the trains, are Hinkley Point to Crewe, Sizewell to Willesden Junction, Dungeness to Willesden Junction, Torness to Crewe, Wylfa to Crewe, Hartlepool to Sellafield, Crewe to Sellafield, Carlisle to Sellafield, Hunterston to Carlisle and Heysham to Carlisle.
Where is nuclear waste stored?
Until 1982, some LLW and ILW was disposed of in deep ocean sites, but the government banned this practice in 1993. Much of the waste is treated soon after it is produced to reduce volumes. The waste will then be stored differently depending on hazard level.
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LLW is stored at a facility at Sellafield. To date, over 10,000 containers have been produced. The total vault space occupied by LLW is about 200,000 cubic metres. About 34,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste disposed in the past at Dounreay are to be retrieved, repackaged and consigned to the new LLW disposal facility adjacent to the current Sellafield site.
To date, about 28,000 cubic metres of ILW, which is also stored at Sellafield, has been packaged, producing about 54,000 packages that are held in modern engineered stores.
High-level liquid waste at Sellafield is stored in stainless steel canisters. Some 840m3 of vitrified high-level waste has been produced and is stored within 5,600 canisters in a modern, engineered air-cooled store. Current practice is for the waste to be stored for at least 50 years before disposal.
About 94% (about 4.2 million cubic metres) of radioactive waste falls into the LLW and very low-level radioactive waste categories. Around 6% (about 290,000 cubic metres) of radioactive waste is in the ILW category, and less than 0.1% (1,100 cubic metres) is in the HLW category.
A new storage facility is currently planned at Harwell, Oxfordshire, for 2,500 cubic metres of of decommissioning waste.