Managing Radioactive Waste - your views matter


Questions and Answers - for organisers

Radioactive waste management is a complicated subject which raises many questions. It is not essential that everyone reads all of the information on this sheet before the discussion, but you may find that it answers some of the questions that come up during the group discussion. It also points you to places where you can find out more.

Who is on the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management?

CoRWM is an independent committee of 11 people. They come from all over the UK and have experience in science, business, planning, environment, health & safety, energy, and law. You can find a list of members on the CoRWM website.

How long is it dangerous for?

Radioactive materials become less radioactive over time as unstable nuclei decay to stable ones. Some lose most of their radioactivity in minutes or hours. Others take hundreds of thousands of years.

Will we import waste from other countries?

The UK currently reprocesses foreign spent fuel at the Sellafield site in Cumbria. High level waste from this process will be returned to the country of origin. The bulkier Intermediate and Low Level Waste also produced during reprocessing will be kept in the UK in return for customer countries taking more High Level Waste. Some people are concerned that no radioactive wastes should be imported from other countries specifically for long-term management in the UK. CoRWM will address this issue in future work.

What is radiation?

Everything is made up of atoms. At the centre of every atom is a nucleus. Some materials have unstable nuclei which give off particles or rays. This is called ionising radiation.

Who is in charge of dealing with it?

Responsibility for managing radioactive wastes in the short-term usually lies with the organisations producing the wastes. Their approach has to follow Government policy and is monitored by safety, environmental and security regulators. A company called Nirex has responsibilities which include keeping track of how much radioactive waste there is, and for advising on how wastes should be packaged. Decisions about who will have responsibility for managing wastes in the long term will be taken after CoRWM has reported to Government.

What is radioactive waste?

Radioactive waste is material that we do not intend to use, that gives off ionising radiation. It includes a wide variety of material, such as used equipment, contaminated clothing and reactor fuel components. Different types of waste give off different amounts of radiation.

Who are CoRWM involving in its work?

CoRWM is seeking to involve a wide range of people in its work, including those with specialist knowledge of radioactive waste management, stakeholders from organisations with an interest in its management, and members of the public. This discussion guide provides one way in which CoRWM seeks to involve the public.

What are the main categories of radioactive waste?

Wastes are classified as high level (HLW), intermediate level (ILW), low level (LLW) and very low level (VLLW) depending on the amount of radioactivity and whether they generate heat. High Level Waste accounts for 95% of the radioactivity in wastes in the UK, and it needs to be stored in ways which disperse the heat it generates. At the other end of the scale, some Very Low Level Waste could be disposed of in landfill sites. The largest volume of the wastes within CoRWM’s remit is Intermediate Level Waste. Most Low level and all Very Low Level Waste is outside CoRWM’s remit, and is subject to a separate Government review.

Who will pay for the long-term management of wastes?

The bulk of the funding is likely to come from the taxpayer, although some funding may come from the nuclear industry using income from the sale of electricity or
from the reprocessing of spent fuel.

Does CoRWM’s remit extend to whether new nuclear power stations should be built?

CoRWM’s task is to make recommendations about what to do with radioactive wastes in the long term, not to form a view on whether there should be new nuclear power stations. However, CoRWM is aware that these issues are linked in various ways and will inform Government of the views it hears through its consultation with the public and other stakeholders.

CoRWM are considering a small number of options. Are there any other options that may be possible in the future?

In 2004, CoRWM created a long-list of options. Many of these options have now been ruled out. However CoRWM is likely to recommend to Government that some of the options that were not short-listed should be kept on a ‘watch’ list. This means that not enough is known about them at this stage to take them forward as viable options, but that there is a possibility that further research and development might make them viable in the future. Further information can be found on the CoRWM website.

Where does it come from?

Radioactive waste is created by generating electricity using nuclear power, making and maintaining nuclear weapons, and using nuclear technology in hospitals, laboratories and industry.

Links to further information


UK Atomic Energy Authority

British Nuclear Fuels Limited


Nuclear Decommissioning Agency


Friends of the Earth

Health Protection Agency

Why is it dangerous?

The radiation from radioactive waste can harm human, animal and plant health. It can damage the cells in our bodies which may cause cancer or defects which parents can pass on to their children. Radioactive material can be harmful if it gets inside the body. The right kind of shielding provides protection from direct exposure to radiation.

What are other countries doing?

All nations that have made a decision on what to do with their radioactive waste have selected deep geological disposal as their preferred option, but many are having trouble finding an acceptable place in which to implement it.

Some countries have agreed to a long period of storage while they investigate disposal more thoroughly, and others are continuing to research other methods.