Skip to main content

https://nda.blog.gov.uk/2020/01/10/how-much-radioactive-waste-is-there-in-the-uk/

How much radioactive waste is there in the UK?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Waste management

The UK Radioactive Waste Inventory provides detailed information on radioactive wastes and material in the country. It is produced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the NDA.

Front cover of the printed version of the inventory

UK Radioactive Waste  Inventory website

What is the Inventory and why do we have it?

The Inventory is essentially a huge dataset with information about all the radioactive waste and materials that we have in the UK, and that we estimate will arise in future.

In addition to nuclear power stations, many important medical, industrial, research and defence activities also produce radioactive waste.

We need the Inventory to understand how much waste there is and where it is located. We also need to understand what the waste is made from, including its physical, chemical and radiological characteristics. We can then use this information to plan safe and efficient ways to manage the waste and materials.

 Radioactive waste data in context

More than 94% of all radioactive waste to be produced in the UK will be Low Level Waste (LLW) or Very Low Level Waste (VLLW). This includes both existing waste (called in stock) and waste estimated to arise over the next 100 years or so. Most of this waste will be produced during the dismantling of existing nuclear facilities and the clean-up of sites. LLW is defined as having a radioactive content not exceeding 4 Gigabecquerels per tonne of alpha activity or 12 Gigabecquerels per tonne of beta/gamma activity. VLLW is a sub-category of LLW, it comprises waste that can be safely disposed of with municipal, commercial or industrial waste, or can be disposed of at specified landfill sites (see Waste Report for more detail)

Less than 6% of all radioactive waste to be produced in the UK will be Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) and less than 0.1% will be High Level Waste (HLW). ILW is defined as wastes exceeding the upper boundaries for LLW, but which do not generate sufficient heat for this to be taken into account in the design of storage or disposal facilities. HLW is waste in which the temperature may rise significantly as a result of radioactivity, so this factor has to be taken into account in the design of storage or disposal facilities.

Graphical breakdown of the different kinds of radioactive waste

 

The amount of radioactive waste produced in the UK is very small compared to all other forms of waste. The total mass of radioactive waste in stock and estimated to be produced over the next 100-year period will be around 5.1 million tonnes. This sounds like a lot, but, for context, the UK currently produces around 5.3 million tonnes of hazardous waste from households and businesses every year.

When packaged, the total amount of radioactive waste produced in the UK (including waste in stock and estimated to arise over the next 100-plus years) would fill a volume around 4.5 million cubic metres, roughly the size of Wembley stadium.

Although the majority of radioactivity is associated with HLW, this waste category represents a very small volume relative to other categories in the 2019 Inventory. In contrast, very little radioactivity is associated with LLW and VLLW although these waste categories represent most of the waste volume in the 2019 Inventory.

Why does the data change? Where can I find out more?

Data about radioactive waste and materials can change due to a range of technical, commercial or policy reasons, such as:

  • our understanding of the waste and materials streams has improved
  • strategies for managing radioactive waste and materials have been updated
  • ongoing operational activities have affected the amount of waste and materials in stock
  • assumptions used to estimate future radioactive waste and materials arisings have been updated

Read more about specific changes in the 2019 UK Inventory compared to the 2016 UK Inventory

So, how accurate is the data?

The inventory is based on the best available information about waste and materials at a specific point in time (the ‘stock date’).  Even so, there are some uncertainties in the data, which we need to carefully consider. The uncertainties may relate to the nature of the waste, how much will arise or when it will arise. Some of the biggest areas of uncertainty are associated with:

  • legacy waste - these are wastes that were produced a long time ago when detailed records were not routinely kept as they are now
  • long-term forecasts - uncertainty typically increases the further that waste arisings are projected into the future
  • future decommissioning and site clean-up - this is particularly the case for waste at the lower end of the activity range (LLW and VLLW), where strategies, plans and waste assessment techniques are continually improving and providing better estimates of future volumes

Where there are uncertainties, sites and producers use the best available information to make reasonable estimates. They may use data from waste samples, surveys and historical evidence to support their assumptions. The final figures are reviewed internally by the site. They are checked again by the contractor who compiles all UK Inventory data on behalf of BEIS and the NDA. This helps to ensure that the assumptions used are as realistic as possible.

How is the UK improving data on radioactive waste and materials?

All waste producers are responsible for managing their own inventory improvement plans. As part of the UK Inventory process, BEIS and the NDA identify areas where improvements would be most valuable and provide guidance on specific areas where data quality could be improved.

In addition to these specific technical improvement plans, an improvement project is under way led by NDA. The project will review the method for collecting the information that makes up the UK Inventory and the nature of the data provided, proposing changes to improve the accuracy, value and accessibility of future inventory exercises.

Graph showing waste that will arise over the next 100 years

The project is being undertaken in collaboration with the National Inventory Forum (NIF), which brings together all of the organisations who manage the waste andmaterials in the UK inventory.

We welcome your feedback

We’re always looking for new ideas and would welcome any feedback you might have on the new reports and updated website.

If you have any questions or suggestions for improvement, please get in touch: enquiries@nda.gov.uk

Sharing and comments

Share this page

2 comments

  1. Comment by Colin Megson posted on

    In the never-ending struggle between low-carbon technologies, to get to get some of those 'green energy' pension pot funds out of renewables and into 'dodgy' nuclear, waste volumes is becoming more and more of a battle ground.

    It would be more than useful to have both the weights and volumes for SNF and the HLW totals - all of the 'stuff' that will be heading for the DGF.

    Any chance? It could be a real weapon in our armoury.

    • Replies to Colin Megson>

      Comment by deborahward posted on

      Thank you for your comment. Section 8 (Table 3) of the 2019 UK Radioactive Waste Inventory provides volume and mass information on the stocks and estimated future arisings of HLW. Section 4 (Table 5) 2019 UK Radioactive Material Inventory provides mass information on the stocks and estimated future arisings of Spent Fuel. More information on this subject can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2016-inventory-for-geological-disposal (see Table B16 (section B8.1) of the main report) where Radioactive Waste Management make assumptions about packaging to calculate the volume of fuel that needs to be disposed of.