A Geological Disposal Facility, or GDF, is a facility designed to receive and 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 deep underground, the facility is permanently sealed. The way the facility is designed and engineered means it can protect people and the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, without needing any maintenance, while the radioactivity decays 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 and safety cases 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 the independent regulators are satisfied.
Unlike other big infrastructure projects, the process of choosing a site for a GDF requires the explicit consent of a community willing to host the facility.
Forming the GDF Working Group is not a commitment to agree to a GDF in Theddlethorpe. Neither is studying potential sites or planning how the community could potentially benefit from the project. The community can be withdrawn from the process at any time.
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 by RWM. It will speak with citizens across the community to begin to understand 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 of Lincolnshire County Council, Theddlethorpe Parish Council and Radioactive Waste Management (RWM – a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority).
Should there be continued interest in whether a GDF could be hosted in the Theddlethorpe 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 up to £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 up to £2.5m per year if deep borehole investigations take place to assess geological suitability.
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 Theddlethorpe, they we will identify an initial ‘Search Area’. This is the geographical area or areas within which RWM will seek potentially suitable sites for a GDF. RWM’s 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 studies will be undertaken to assess which areas might be suitable to site a GDF. Once identified, boreholes could 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, could the construction of the GDF begin.
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).
Radioactive waste is stored at nuclear facilities around the country, with the bulk of it stored as Sellafield, Europe’s largest nuclear site. Sellafield dates back to the late 1940s and 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.
Sellafield’s range of purpose-built stores are 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 climate changes 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 future generations to take perpetual care of today’s hazardous legacy.
GDF surface facilities could require around one square kilometre of land, depending on how the site was laid out and if any of the facilities were located off-site.
These surface facilities would be linked to the much larger underground GDF facilities by sloping tunnels and/or vertical shafts. The primary purpose of the surface facilities would be to receive solid waste packages from rail and road network and transfer them to the underground facilities and to support ongoing construction of new underground vaults.
RWM would seek to ensure that the delivery of a GDF is sensitive to the local area and that the designs of surface facilities are sympathetic to the local environment.
Under current plans, at the end of the operation phase the surface facility would be removed with the area being restored to natural habitat.
Yes, it is possible for the underground facilities to extend out beyond the coastline, underneath several hundreds of metres of rock. The initial discussions about Theddlethorpe have focused on a GDF deep in the rock beyond the coast.
From a geological perspective, there is little difference between a GDF constructed within rocks under land or within rocks under the seabed. A GDF exists to isolate the waste from the surface environment, and providing the correct geological environment is selected, it makes little difference what is going on in that surface environment – land or sea. In either scenario, the depths of rock above ensure protection for many thousands of years.
What’s absolutely clear is that while a GDF could be built hundreds of metres below the seabed, waste would not be disposed of on the seabed itself.
Compared to a land based GDF, there are of course different challenges and considerations, such as avoiding disruption to marine environments during preliminary investigations and construction. We would also need to liaise with stakeholders in the fishing and maritime sectors.
But the priorities would remain the same: safety and security, plus full compliance with all the regulatory criteria.
When the time comes – many years from now – a GDF would be built safely in any one of three potential host rock types commonly found in the UK. You can read more about the different geologies here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68fJrVN_B_k
The potential host rock around Theddlethorpe, including the area deep under the seabed, is made up of a well-known and predictable sequence of sedimentary rocks at the right depth for a GDF (200-1,000m).
We already know quite a lot about the subsurface geology of the UK, but not enough to fully base a final decision on the siting of a GDF, because it would be built much deeper (up to 1000m) than normal underground infrastructure, like most pipelines and train tunnels. So we will need to carry out further detailed, site-specific investigations like seismic surveys and drilling boreholes before it is possible to conclude whether an area would be suitable or not.We already know quite a lot about the subsurface geology of the UK, but not enough to fully base a final decision on the siting of a GDF, because it would be built much deeper (up to 1000m) than normal underground infrastructure, like most pipelines and train tunnels. So we will need to carry out further detailed, site-specific investigations like seismic surveys and drilling boreholes before it is possible to conclude whether an area would be suitable or not.
Different types of transport infrastructure will be needed at different stages of the project, if it were to proceed.
For example, in early stages, while initial site investigations take place, there would be very little change. During construction, we would need to move construction materials and spoil from digging tunnels and underground shafts, along with the people who are building it. During the operation phase, additional infrastructure would be required to safely transport the packaged radioactive waste.
The existing transport networks around Theddlethorpe or any other site will almost certainly need to be improved, which could provide additional local benefits by improving road and rail connections. This could make the area more attractive for further economic development, other investment projects and support tourism.
Any plans to change the transport infrastructure would have to be in line with local transport plans and designed to make sure they also provide the greatest possible benefit to the local community.
Any future transport options would need to take into account the flood risk, just as the GDF surface site location would. As part of this, opportunities for combining transport improvements, particularly road or rail with flood mitigation works would be considered.
Sea transport would be considered and could bring additional benefits through any upgrading things like ports, as well as reducing the impact of land-based transport.
We understand that communities might be concerned about property values. Most major infrastructure projects provide compensation for local residents and property owners who experience an impact on the value of their property as a result of new infrastructure.
If this project proceeds to the next stage (Community Partnership), RWM will work in partnership with the community to assess how a property support scheme would be implemented. RWM would seek independent advice and draw upon best practice and experience from other infrastructure projects, to ensure any potential scheme is appropriate for the local area.
Significant parts of the East Lindsey District area are at risk of coastal flooding and erosion, which is predicted to get worse as sea levels rise due to climate change. If the Theddlethorpe gas terminal site were to be taken forward for a GDF, RWM would work with the Environment Agency and the Lead Local Flood Authority to understand the challenges and develop plans to make sure this area does not get flooded, which could in turn benefit the local area too.
Using ‘good design’ principles, RWM would look to make sure that the delivery of a GDF would be sensitive to the local area, natural resources and energy used in construction efficiently, and that the surface facilities would be sympathetic to the local environment, as far as practicable.