Action commences to secure low-level nuclear waste vaults in Cumbria

The Repository – which is part of Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) and manages disposal of the UK’s low-level nuclear waste – has begun action on the final capping of full trenches and vaults ready for permanent closure in Cumbria.

Nuclear wasteDisposal at the site near Drigg in Cumbria began in 1959 – with disposal techniques evolving in the following decades – with low-level nuclear waste safely disposed of in specially designed metal containers in newly constructed and highly-engineered concrete vaults.

Cumbria's low-level waste repository serves as the primary facility for the disposal of low-level waste  in the UK. This site – licensed for nuclear activities – facilitates the safe, secure, and environmentally compliant management of low-level waste materials, ensuring their effective disposal in its vaults.

A long-term programme is now underway to permanently seal the existing vaults and nearby trenches. The initial capping stages of the project are anticipated to take five years to complete.

The first phase of the programme – the Southern Trench Cap Interim Membrane (STIM) project – will involve installing a new membrane over certain trenches to provide ongoing protection to the waste, with an expected lifespan of up to 100 years. Preliminary drainage works to prepare the site for the membrane’s installation has now commenced.

Mike Pigott, Director of Sites and Operations for NWS, said: “The Low-Level Waste Repository is an important national asset and is critical to delivering the Nuclear Waste Services’ mission.

“I am pleased we’re progressing work on this long-term project with work commencing on site for this phase. It is vitally important that NWS caps the existing vaults and trenches to provide long-term protection to the wastes and the environment for generations to come.

“We’re making good progress on the project with a cap design agreed, infrastructure in place to deliver this work and permission to build the cap has been granted by the local authority. We will continue to work with our community to maintain our social licence to operate and are committed to being a considerate neighbour whilst delivering our important mission.”

The NWS has been holding drop-in sessions and site tours with the local community to share details on what is to occur over the coming months.

Strategies have been devised to mitigate and reduce any potential noise, dust, traffic, ecological, and visual impacts.

Nuclear waste in the UK

The production and management of nuclear waste in the UK have been ongoing for numerous decades and remain in plans for the future.

Presently, the UK Government deems nuclear power as indispensable for the low-carbon energy mix and ensuring future energy supply – a perspective shared by the Welsh Government, which supports the development of new nuclear facilities.

Most radioactive waste produced in the UK is Low-Level or Very Low-Level. Over the past decade, there has been a more sustainable approach to handling low-level and intermediate-level waste, safeguarding the remaining capacity of disposal vaults.

Preferred alternatives now include re-use, recycling, decontamination, incineration, and specialised landfill for waste with the lowest levels of radioactivity. Disposal at the Repository site is now considered a last resort.

Moving forward, the NWS is currently engaging with the supply chain to choose the contractor for the upcoming phase of the project. This phase is scheduled to span four years – with commencement anticipated in late 2024 – and entails installing the additional membrane beneath the interim trench cap.

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