In this guest blog post from Radioactive Waste Management (RWM), we find out more about RWM's geological disposal programme and the opportunities it can provide for communities.
It’s now time for us all to pull together to explore opportunities which could revitalise our economy

A recent ONS report found that since March, when the Covid lockdown began, the number of employees in the UK on payrolls to the end of August 2020 was down around 695,000. It’s fair to say that we are living through challenging times fuelled by uncertainty about the future and the necessary restrictions and difficulties presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

What’s geological disposal and where does radioactive waste come from?

In the UK we have used nuclear technologies for over 60 years to power our homes, for medical diagnoses and treatment, in research, industry and defence. But like many industries, using nuclear technology creates waste and this radioactive waste needs to be managed safely for the long term. Surface storage of packaged radioactive waste is safe and secure in the short term, but we need an environmentally sustainable solution to deal permanently with the waste to avoid continually passing the burden on to future generations. And this is where geological disposal comes in.

The right thing to do

There is international consensus that the safest permanent solution for dealing with certain types of solid radioactive waste is to isolate it deep underground in a specially engineered network of vaults and tunnels constructed in solid rock. This is called a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF).

Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has been tasked with delivering a GDF for the UK. It will be one of the UK’s largest ever environmental protection projects, and importantly, it will only be constructed where there is both a suitable site and a willing community.

Who else is doing this?

Countries such as Sweden, France and Finland have already identified their preferred GDF sites, with construction underway in Finland, while others, including Switzerland and Canada, are well on their way to finding a site.

Will it be safe?

Many years of detailed site characterisation, facility engineering and design work will be required to ensure that a GDF can meet all the safety and security regulations and requirements before anything is constructed. If RWM, the NDA and the independent Regulators are not absolutely assured that a proposed GDF is safe and secure, it cannot be built.

The long-term nature of the project offers the opportunity to develop a clear community vision for the long-term well-being of the local area.

How could a community benefit?

As a multi-billion pound inter-generational project, the construction of a GDF can play an important role in generating economic stimulus and regeneration and could have significant long-term transformative benefits for a community. The underground elements of a GDF are constructed gradually over a period of more than 100 years, so the facility itself will provide skilled employment for thousands of people over its lengthy operational life. It will also create and sustain supply chain opportunities for the supporting businesses required to deliver and maintain a highly engineered facility and its workforce.

The eventual host community will also receive significant additional investment which could deliver a range of benefits which might include developing community facilities, business opportunities, supporting transport, social infrastructure and environmental spaces.
The long-term nature of the project, and particularly the early period of community partnership working also offers the opportunity to develop a clear community vision for the long-term well-being of the local area and deliver a better future for a community for decades to come.

The GDF programme is all about communities – investment, choice and long-term potential.

RWM will work in partnership with communities in England and Wales to explore the potential for them to host a GDF and discuss the opportunities that a GDF can provide for those communities to establish whether this would fit with their vision for their area. This community engagement will require ongoing dialogue to build trust and mutual understanding over time.

The siting and construction of a GDF is the first community consent based major infrastructure project ever undertaken in the UK. Communities have an ongoing right of withdrawal from the discussions and the local population must give explicit consent to host a facility, through a test of public support, before a planning application for a facility can be made, so the success of this multi-generational endeavour depends on finding a suitable site with a willing host community.

How can we get involved?

Anyone can approach RWM to find out more about the programme but, if this is to move into real community engagement, then the first step is to form a ‘Working Group’ to begin that local engagement and identify an area to consider. Based on that, initial members can join a ‘Community Partnership’ that could take forward engagement with RWM on the project over the many years required to assess potential sites. The Community Partnership would answer people’s questions, build a community vision and ultimately allow the community to take an informed decision on whether to support a development locally. RWM will work with communities and make available funding and practical support to ensure people can be engaged and involved in the process as well as providing community investment funding for projects that, for example, improve community wellbeing, develop new skills and enhancements to public spaces. To begin with, £1m per year of investment funding will be available for projects within each community with a partnership. This will rise to £2.5m per year in communities where physical borehole investigations are carried out in support of site characterisation.

There are few projects in the UK like this with the scale and potential to act as a positive catalyst for transforming the socio-economic vitality of a community, so we hope that you’ll join us to discuss the opportunity further at the Locality Lunch and Learn webinar at 12pm on Thursday 22 October.

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