AWE’s nuclear waste plan: send it to Sellafield

Sellafield seen from the beach. Image: Ashley Coates, Flickr

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) plan to send up to 5,000 barrels of Higher Activity Waste to Sellafield for treatment and storage. Since the year 2000 AWE has been under pressure from its regulators to take action to reduce its holdings of radioactive waste, some of which dates back to the 1983 moratorium on waste being dumped at sea.

This culminated in an improvement notice in 2015 from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) which required AWE to produce a plan for dealing with its waste holdings. Earlier efforts to deal with the waste floundered when a plan to procure a super-compactor and build a waste treatment centre at AWE Aldermaston. The building originally intended to house the super-compactor was unable to meet modern seismic resilience standards and the plan was abandoned when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refused to spend the £78m required to build a new facility.

The plan produced by AWE to satisfy the 2015 improvement notice concluded that sending the waste to be treated and stored at Sellafield would be preferable to building an on-site waste facility.

The Sellafield is operated by a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the government body responsible for decommissioning the UK’s nuclear power sites. Waste from many of those sites is being moved to Sellafield for treatment and storage. AWE’s decision means that the HAW at Aldermaston will be treated using the same processes and infrastructure as the NDA’s waste holdings.

When agreeing to close the improvement notice ONR agreed that AWE’s plan would reduce the on-site hazard from the waste but also warned that the complexity of the plan entailed technical risks and uncertainties in implementing it. ONR is monitoring the implementation of AWE’s plan and has not made any public statement to indicate that they are unhappy with progress.

The waste will initially be transported by road from Aldermaston before loading onto trains for transport on to Sellafield. Transport of all defence-related nuclear materials is overseen by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR). All annual reports by the DNSR since April 2015, including the annual safety assurance rating given by the regulator, have been censored by the MoD.