Low-level radioactive waste storage vaults open

Nuclear decommissioning company Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL) has begun placing nuclear waste in a vault built specifically for storing low-level radioactive waste (LLW) at Dounreay nuclear power station in Caithness, Scotland.

The plant, which opened on the Scottish coast in 1957, was closed in 1994. Decommissioning of the nuclear reactors, reprocessing plant and associated facilities has been the responsibility of DSRL since 2008, and it is expected that all radioactive wastes will have been safely packaged for long-term storage or disposal by 2025.

It was announced on Tuesday (19 May) that the first lot of LLW had been successfully placed in two on-site storage vaults (pictured), built by construction company GRAHAM.

Inside the new LLW storage vaults

In April this year, active commissioning began at the encapsulation plant where a container holding LLW was filled with cement-based grout. It is this container, and packages of demolition LLW (which were previously in storage at the Dounreay site) that have been placed in the LLW vaults.

Vault 1 will now be used mainly for ‘lightly’ contaminated rubble produced from demolition work at Dounreay, while Vault 2 will store all remaining LLW that requires more ‘engineered packaging’ to be dealt with safely, and for which ‘special disposal procedures have been developed’.

A further two LLW vaults are expected to be finished by 2020, but DSRL has said that it is planning to bring the construction programme ‘forward within the overall portfolio of site projects’.

Once all six of the planned vaults have been sealed and the surface restored, access to parts of the site will be restricted until 2300 to allow radioactivity in the ground to decay.

UK still without storage capability for higher-level radioactive waste

This news comes amid growing concern over the lack of long-term radioactive waste facilities in the UK. For example, the UK still does not have any storage capability for higher activity radioactive waste (HAW).

Currently, all radioactive waste (including nuclear waste) in the UK is contained in surface-level stores across the country. Indeed, the UK’s largest nuclear processing site at Sellafield in Cumbria (where 70 per cent of the UK’s total nuclear waste either arises or is reprocessed) is scheduled to be decommissioned over the next decade, fuelling the urgency for finding suitable ways of dealing with nuclear waste, especially as a report released by the National Audit Office in November 2012 condemned the existing storage of nuclear waste at the Sellafield site as ‘outdated’.

However, to date, the UK has not implemented a final disposal solution for HAW that would ‘obviate the need for future intervention and would ensure that no harmful amounts of radioactivity are released to the environment at any point in the future’.

Despite this, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), decided that what it calls ‘geological disposal’– burying it deep beneath the ground – is the safest way to manage HAW. But the search for a viable nuclear waste storage facility stalled last year, after councillors from Cumbria, the last remaining community to volunteer to host the site, voted against continuing the search for a site to potentially host the £12-billion underground disposal facility in the area.

To counter this from happening again, in March 2015 Parliament passed new legislation that gives central government the ultimate responsibility for siting radioactive waste repositories in England.

Find out more about the Dounreay site or problems with nuclear waste storage.

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