New Nuclear


The final step - disposing of the waste

John Corderoy

John Corderoy is the GDF Technical Director for Nuclear Waste Services, the delivery body for the UK’s deep Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), which will provide a final disposal route for the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste. He has responsibility for all technical aspects associated with delivery. Previously, John had a 30 year career with the Royal Navy as a nuclear submariner; and as the UK’s Director of Nuclear Propulsion he was responsible for all aspects of designing, delivering and supporting submarine reactor plants.


  • The search for a permanent solution for radioactive waste has been going on since the 1970s
  • Geological disposal is recognised at best practice around the world
  • The current UK policy puts communities at the heart of the programme
  • The first European repository for spent nuclear fuel is due to start operations in 2023
  • Societies cannot abdicate responsibility for waste disposal and just hand them on to future generations.

The search for a permanent solution to the challenge of the country’s growing store of higher-activity radioactive waste started in 1976, following the publication of the Flowers Report for the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. In 2022, the search continues although we are now making good progress.

The UK’s inventory of radioactive waste comes from a variety of activities that trace back to the 1940s. Nor is it just a matter of the overall volume, it concerns the complexity with a huge number of different waste streams. Waste is currently stored at sites all over the country. That is not an immediate problem. But it is not fair to ask our descendants to continue to look after something that was generated 500 or 1000 years ago, which is of absolutely no use to anyone, yet incurs ongoing costs. The current effort to dispose of the waste permanently, as opposed to storing it long term, addresses the question of intergenerational equity. We should not expect future generations to carry on paying to store this waste.

There have been a number of policy papers on geological disposal. The current policy was launched in late 2018. It was developed after a thorough look at the previous process that closed in 2013. Communities are at the heart of the new approach.

International best practice

The present policy is working well and it draws on international experience – what was working elsewhere. Geological disposal is recognised internationally as the only realistic choice for the disposal of large complex inventories. There are other options for less hazardous radioactive wastes, including Near Surface Disposal. Deep borehole disposal could accommodate certain waste products. However, with our inventory, when some of the packages are six cubic metre concrete boxes, they will not fit down a borehole!

These wastes stay active and hazardous for thousands of years and some for hundreds of thousands. The Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) will use geological barriers – the facility will be up to 1000 metres deep – to provide the necessary long-term control of that waste. One option we are examining is to place the tunnels and vaults beneath the seabed. These would take up a space 5-6km square. The surface facilities on land would typically be a site of about 1km2, a logistics facility where the waste would arrive from different parts of the country, be transferred and then moved to depth and emplaced in the vaults and tunnels. The operational phase of the GDF will be over 100 years, after which the whole facility will be sealed up. That is, in essence, what a deep geological repository is all about.

We work very closely with other international waste management organisations. Finland has constructed the initial parts of its repository. Final commissioning work will take place in 2023 and then disposal of Finland's inventory of spent fuel will begin. Sweden is not far behind and then the French programme, which should be in operation towards the end of this decade. Canada is just completing a long site-selection process, with 22 volunteer communities. They are close to making their final choice

So the UK is in good company. As the nation that started the Atomic Age, though, we really need to push on ourselves. If we can close the back end of the fuel cycle with a permanent disposal solution that removes the liability from future generations, then I think we are doing a really good thing.

Illustrative example of  a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) 

Energy security

The Energy Security Strategy sets out an aspiration for 24GW of new nuclear capacity. The 2014 policy paper already assumed 16GW to be accommodated in our programme, along with a number of other items that are still in debate as to whether they represent wastes or not – things like depleted uranium. So there was already a large inventory underlying our planning.

It should also be noted that the design of the GDF is modular. It is not a matter of building the entire structure and then filling it. Just like a mine, it evolves over the 100 or more years of its lifetime, with the tunnels and vaults being built as they are needed. So 24GW is not a specific challenge for a GDF. In addition, we are at the early part of the design programme, so it is easy to accommodate that type of change.

There are now four communities in the process, with three in West Cumbria which has a strong history in nuclear. Then there is Theddlethorpe on the East Coast which is our first non-nuclear community. We are currently in discussion with those four communities and carrying out some initial geological investigations. We will look to pick the two front runners in 2025 or 2027. Then there will be a programme of intensive geological investigation before selection of our preferred site. Discussions with the communities can be quite complicated given the range of views and aspirations. This facility will however provide long term jobs, and some tangible socio-economic benefits quite quickly.

In terms of national infrastructure, though, it is essential. It is a key part of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s overall mission and is part of the largest environmental clean-up programme in the UK. So it is an immensely worthwhile project to be engaged in.

One of the key lessons from the past 40 years is that whenever organisations or Government have tried to enforce this on an area, it has not worked. That is not just a UK experiences, there is plenty of evidence globally. This time, communities are at the heart of the process.

One of my pleas to the whole of the nuclear sector is to have a little patience. We fired the starting gun in the UK in 1976. People often ask if I can shorten the timeline by a year or two to get to first waste emplacement. Actually, the most important factor is building that trust with the communities, carrying them over the line and really getting them invested in an enterprise that they will be proud to host and be part of, for a very long time.