What can go wrong? Nuclear waste is buried in the English countryside

  • The government says a cheaper, shallow facility could be completed within a decade
  • No details were given on where the facility might be built or the cost



Up to five million tonnes of nuclear waste could be buried in a shallow pit beneath the English countryside, according to a new government strategy.

New plans show that a ‘near-surface’ facility, dug less than 200 meters below the surface, could be used to store some of Britain’s less hazardous nuclear waste.

The location of the mine has not yet been announced, but the government says a facility could be built in England or Wales within the next decade.

The plans are aimed at easing pressure on Britain’s 17 nuclear waste treatment facilities, which are currently struggling to deal with seven decades’ worth of accumulated waste.

However, a solution to Britain’s most dangerous nuclear waste won’t be ready for at least another 25 years.

Up to five million tonnes of nuclear waste could be buried in a shallow pit (artist’s impression) beneath the English countryside, according to a new government strategy
These plans are intended as an alternative while the government builds a long-term solution in the form of a geological disposal facility. This involves burying nuclear waste about 1 km below the seabed to prevent the radiation from escaping
A solution to Britain’s most dangerous nuclear waste won’t be ready for at least 25 years (stock image)

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The proposed facility is intended for the storage of intermediate-level waste, which is considered less hazardous than extremely radioactive material such as plutonium.

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) told MailOnline this could include: ‘Materials such as graphite, stainless steel and other ferrous metals.’

According to DESNZ it is this type of waste “does not require this hyper-secure isolation and can be disposed of more quickly and safely in underground disposal facilities.”

However, the plans provide few details on where and how this facility will be built.

The DESNZ spokesperson told MailOnline that it would be the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s responsibility to “develop robust site criteria” that will ultimately determine the location of the site.

Local councils are likely to strongly oppose plans to build a nuclear disposal facility within their jurisdiction, which could limit the number of possible sites.

Earlier this year, South Holderness council in Yorkshire quashed the government’s plans to build a nuclear storage facility.

It is possible that the facility will be built in a disused mine or former nuclear site to avoid difficulties in obtaining a building permit.

The UK’s waste is currently stored at 17 sites across the country, such as Sellafield (pictured), but these are reaching capacity
The plans are aimed at easing pressure on Britain’s 17 nuclear waste treatment facilities, which are currently struggling to deal with seven decades’ worth of accumulated waste.

Although the government insists such a facility would be completely safe, there are concerns that it could lead to the release of radioactive waste.

It could take many thousands of years for nuclear waste to be completely safe, and there is a risk that underground storage will seep into the water, bringing the waste back to the surface.

Over the enormous time scales required for nuclear storage, the risk that an environmental change will cause waste to be released becomes much greater.

For example, a 2016 study found that rising sea levels could release 35 swimming pools of nuclear waste from the U.S. military base Camp Century in Greenland.

Other disasters, such as the Sellafield fire in 1957, can release radioactive particles into the air and spread them across the country.

Long-term storage of nuclear waste can be difficult. In 2016, researchers discovered that nuclear waste from the US military base Camp Century in Greenland (pictured) could end up in the oceans as sea levels rise

How is nuclear waste stored?

Nuclear waste is currently stored at 17 sites in Britain, the largest of which is Sellafield in Cumbria.

Disposal facilities use huge warehouses to store low-risk waste.

More dangerous waste, such as spent fuel, is stored in cooling ponds, which keep radiation levels low.

More long-term solutions propose building geological disposal facilities that bury the waste up to a kilometer underground.

These use hundreds of meters of stone to block the most dangerous radiation.

Even recently, failures in nuclear storage have cast doubt on how effectively nuclear waste can be managed.

In April, a nuclear waste storage facility in Cumbria was warned to take action following a delay in securing or ‘capping’ waste at the site.

In a statement, the Nuclear Waste Agency said: ‘A number of assumptions were tested during the design phase, as is usual.

“Not all of these assumptions held true, and one in particular caused a significant change in the design.”

But as the government continues to increase the country’s nuclear power capacity, the issue of where to store spent fuel is likely to become a bigger problem.

In 1976, an inquiry by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution found that Britain should stop building reactors until it had a solution to its mounting piles of waste.

Nevertheless, the government is currently pushing ahead with plans to build at least three new nuclear power stations and a ‘fleet’ of small modular reactors.

Hazardous waste such as spent fuel and plutonium must be stored in geological storage facilities that use hundreds of meters of rock to trap radiation deep underground.

This facility would be built near the coast and would consist of a series of tunnels and caves dug up to twenty kilometers offshore.

Sellafield currently holds most of Britain’s 110,000 tonnes of uranium, 6,000 tonnes of spent fuel and around 120 tonnes of plutonium. A new shallow facility could ease pressure on the larger sites

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Robots would then be used to transport the dangerous nuclear waste to a storage site up to 1 km below the seabed.

However, the current plan to build a persistent storage solution has now been massively delayed and is proving to be extremely expensive.

According to the Nuclear Waste Service (NSW), the project could cost £66 billion ($83.5 billion) and won’t be completed until 2050.

By comparison, the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station was originally expected to cost £9 billion ($11 billion) but is now expected to cost £46 billion ($58.2 billion).

Britain’s radioactive waste already includes 110,000 tons of uranium, 6,000 tons of spent fuel and about 120 tons of plutonium.

By the time a geological storage solution is completed, the NWS estimates this could total 750,000 cubic yards of nuclear waste.

A shallower site such as this proposed plan could help remove some of the least hazardous waste and free up space in Sellafield, where much of the waste is currently stored.

Nuclear Energy Minister Andrew Bowie said: ‘The UK has been a pioneer in nuclear technology, and now we are taking sensible steps to manage our radioactive waste, while reducing the burden on the environment and taxpayers.’

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