IF you have lived or worked in West Cumbria, you will have come across the term 'geological disposal facility' (GDF) – but what does it mean?

Ideas around how we safely dispose of the country’s nuclear waste have been in existence for many years, however the GDF programme is now said to be ‘further ahead than ever before’ after Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) was formed in 2022 in order to lead on the creation of a GDF facility in the UK.

Plans are well in place to create a facility in the United Kingdom, with hopes that the earliest date for waste in placement at a site would be by the 2050s. Currently three sites are in the mix with Cumbria being home to two potential areas: Mid Copeland, South Copeland, with the third one in Lincolnshire around Theddlethorpe.

There is also the potential for further 'search areas' to join the process in England and Wales.

Detailed studies and investigations of site suitability will be conducted over a number of years to help ensure a GDF can be constructed, operated, and closed safely and securely.

NWS added it will evaluate each potential site to establish whether it is suitable, based on siting factors which include safety and security, community, environment, engineering feasibility, transport, and value for money.

Times and Star: Reporter Bridget Dempsey inside the laboratory.Reporter Bridget Dempsey inside the laboratory. (Image: NQ staff)

I was invited by NWS in November to look a little deeper (quite literally) at one of the nearest examples on Earth we have to what it may look like inside a geological disposal facility.

It was a surreal experience taking the trip 450 metres underground into the Andra Meuse/Heute -Marne laboratory in Northern France, but the work that is going on there is quite honestly ground-breaking.

The site gives a glimpse into what the project will most likely look like when ground is broken on the nearby Cigeo site, the French GDF facility planned to store France’s nuclear waste.

The aim of the GDF is to isolate the waste and contain the radioactivity until it eventually decays.

NWS’s French counterpart Andra is ahead of the UK in their programme, which gives the UK organisation opportunity to look at some of the ways of thinking, although many differences also exist.

Professor Neil Hyatt, chief scientific advisor at NWS, is the man at the helm of understanding the science of what a new GDF in the UK may look like in the future.

Talking about the benefits of being able to work with organisations such as Andra, who are ahead in the process, with hopes that they will have their site built, filled and sealed by 2170, he said: “There are multiple benefits really. From the technical side the French programme are probably a decade ahead of us and so they are working in a real relevant environment and that’s not the stage we are at yet, so on technical side there is a lot that we can learn from being able to access sites like that.

"For example, the basic science of how radioactivity moves through that kind of rock, and how those processes take place in real time.

Times and Star: Some of the machinery used in the laboratory.Some of the machinery used in the laboratory. (Image: NQ staff)

When asked how the French lab compares to what a GDF may look like in the UK, Professor Hyatt said: “The first thing to say is that our current portfolio is to develop a site under the sea bed with access from land. And of course when we visited the URL it’s under the land and the French GDF will be under the land, so there will be different access.

"Certainly the URL is illustrative of what parts of the GDF might look like, but it is built as a lab and optimised to be a lab, but in the sense that the underground tunnels, the way the tunnels are stabilised, the size of some of the excavations, the full scale end plug, the tunnel linings... these are all sort of as good [an idea] as we have got at the moment of what might actually be implemented.

“As an illustrative example, it’s like I suppose getting a new kitchen. You go down to B&Q and say well I like that worktop, I like those doors, but I want that oven, but then none of it’s in your own house. It’s a good illustration but the real development takes on its own sort of identity and its own realisation, in the real location, in that sense.”

When asked what the benefits of a GDF in Cumbria may be, Professor Hyatt said: “The primary benefit is to achieve bringing the waste management lifecycle to its safe and secure end point, so although we store radioactive waste securely at, I think, 20 sites around the UK, that is not sustainable because of the ongoing cost and risk.

Times and Star: A 10 metre tunnel which has been constructed inside the laboratory.A 10 metre tunnel which has been constructed inside the laboratory. (Image: NQ staff)

“We - as the generation who benefitted from the production of low carbon electricity from nuclear - it’s our responsibility to take care of that waste, bring the waste management to a safe and secure end point and the GDF is the accepted answer for that, so we need it."

Jacques Delay, directeur du laboratoire at Andra in France said: “Definitely the main importance for the UK, and interest for the UK in our project is that we are in similar rock types, in some sedimentary basins, because we have developed new techniques and technologies and carried out research that would be similar whatever clay formation of the similar age and geological conditions.

Times and Star: Jacques Delay, Directeur Du Laboratoire at Andra in France.Jacques Delay, Directeur Du Laboratoire at Andra in France. (Image: NQ staff)

“But the contexts are different in many aspects, we being on the land on the plateau, compared to other parts of the UK you will face differences as well. So some aspects will be easily transferable, such as the building of high level cells, but some other are not.

“When Andra started its work in Bure we gained a lot of experience in what has been done, so this is why it is so critical for us to keep close contact with all of our sister projects around the world, because we are sharing the same concerns, the same challenges.

"And although we can’t share everything and things aren’t always transferable there is always something to learn from other projects and people.”

One of the main differences to France for the British scheme is that the public in the area of siting will decide on whether or not they want the site to be in their community. It is not yet decided how this will be done yet - the method for taking that Test of Public Support will be decided by the relevant 'community partnership' - but the construction of a GDF requires public acceptance.

Each community partnership is made up of the local authority, the GDF developer and members who are reflective of the community in the area. Their main role is to facilitate discussion with the community and identify relevant information that people want or need about the potential GDF, before eventually helping to facilitate the Test of Public Support.

In France, the public did not play a factor in a final decision of siting, although Andra said it has worked hard in the last few years to both inform and reassure the public on the site, community partnerships have been set up and open days are held at the Meuse/Heute-Marne laboratory to allow local people to gain a greater understanding on the GDF programme.

Damien Theriott, councillor at the Departmental Council of Haute-Marne said: “Heute Marne and Meuse are quiet, and we expect in this project a lot of things, not only money. It’s good but there is also the development of our industry which I think is very important as jobs for our local people.

“We would like a development that provides economic growth and tries to provide activity to the community.

“As the project is very long, we can prepare the people for transformation. It’s not tomorrow, I think it’s our responsibility to explain to the people.”