Nuclear Information Centre.

Thinking Inside the Box.
(Duration 2m 44s - looped) [archived version duration 14m 42s - looped]
NIC/GD/001 (with special thanks to the University of Gloucestershire archives).

Nic Pehkonen, Thinking Inside the Box, 2022 [Trolley, archive box, MP3 player and Wireless Bluetooth speaker].

A search is currently underway in England and Wales to find a suitable site in which to build a geological disposal facility (GDF) for the permanent containment of the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste, some of which may take in the region of 100,000 years to reach safe levels.

Although we are officially asked to place our trust in the science and engineering behind a GDF, once custody of the waste is transferred to the geological realm, we can only make educated guesses as to its long-term safety over the millennia it will need to operate. Once the GDF is closed and permanently sealed, the only “access” will be through above ground archived records in whatever form these may take. So perhaps, within human timescales at least, the nuclear archive will assume a nominal and even primary safety role as it will effectively become the only accessible record of the precise content and sub-surface location of each individual radioactive waste package.

Thinking Inside the Box invites you to embark on an imaginary radioactive waste journey, simultaneously taking you from Sizewell B power station on the Suffolk coast to Sellafield in West Cumbria, before finally arriving deep underground, seemingly contained within a future geological disposal facility where, by some strange alchemy, the deposited material seamlessly metamorphoses from nuclear waste to archived record.

The archive box on its moveable trolley also functions as a metaphor for the yet to be identified GDF site which could itself be thought of as a future, non-retrievable, physical archive of the UK’s higher activity radioactive waste. As we have learned, no humans will be able to enter the facility once it is sealed off, but unrequested, irradiated “records”, in the form of hazardous radionuclides, may potentially seep out of the radioactive waste packages over time. In this exhibit, the sound emanating from the archive box cannot be contained and literally leaks through the cardboard walls, aurally contaminating the surrounding space.

Assuming a GDF is ultimately built, the estimated timeline for populating and closing the facility is around 100 years so, until that time, a full set of archived records will not exist either. At present, the UK national nuclear archive, (Nucleus), is in Wick, in the far north of Scotland although ironically, Scottish government policy does not support geological disposal. So, although it may play host to the future archived records, a GDF itself cannot be built in Scotland.

The radioactive material buried within a GDF will need to remain undisturbed for at least 100,000 years and the engineered radioactive waste packages will be specifically designed with this longevity in mind.

How long will the archived records of the waste packages be designed to last?

Will the physical archive itself still exist in 100 years? What about 1000 years, 10,000 years, 100,000 years?

There are two alternative audio tracks embedded within this exhibit, the shorter of which is a concatenation of two excerpts from a Nuclear Waste Services (NWS) videoWhy will a GDF be safe?, the full transcript of which is included below.

Nuclear Waste Services, Why will a GDF be safe?, 2022 [video transcript].

“Why will a geological disposal facility or GDF be safe?

A GDF will be safe because it will be underpinned by scientific research.

Safety, security and the protection of people and the environment underpin everything we do. We will need to show that a GDF will be safe based on a wide range of evidence from some of the world’s top scientists and through the use of cutting-edge research. All of this will be recorded in a set of documents called a safety case. We are required to follow stringent regulations based on international safety standards by UK independent regulators to demonstrate that a GDF will remain safe even under potential future scenarios such as sea level changes or an ice age.

A GDF will be safe because it will isolate the waste deep underground.

The UK’s radioactive waste is currently stored in facilities above ground. Its safe but its not a long-term solution because some of this waste would require ongoing maintenance for hundreds of thousands of years. A GDF is designed to isolate higher activity radioactive waste up to hundreds of metres deep underground and contain it in a highly engineered underground facility while the radioactivity decreases naturally. This will prevent radioactivity from ever reaching the surface in levels that could cause harm. Once a GDF is closed it won’t require ongoing maintenance because the waste remains sealed away deep underground.

A GDF will be safe because it will contain the waste using engineered and natural barriers.

Only solid radioactive waste goes into a GDF, transformed into blocks of glass mixed with cement or set in a resin matrix. This makes it safer to handle, transport and dispose of. The solid waste will then be packaged and sealed into robust containers made from a durable material such as copper, steel, or concrete, depending on the type of waste and geology and designed to last while it decays. The radioactive waste containers will be carefully placed into a GDF surrounded by a protective backfill or buffer. The backfill of cement or clay protects and preserves the waste container from damage arising from rock movements and even earthquakes. The whole unit will be placed beneath several hundreds of metres of rock which will form the final barrier between the waste and the surface. A GDF is designed to remain sealed and undisturbed for hundreds of thousands of years and records of its location will be kept in both national and international nuclear archives.

A GDF will be safe because we will only choose a suitable site.

We will only consider constructing a GDF at a site where we can prove its safe and secure and where a community is willing to host it. We’ll analyse the rock at the specific site and design the engineered barriers to make best use of the geology. The site will be tested for suitability at every stage to ensure its long-term safety. If we can’t satisfy ourselves and the independent regulators that a GDF at that location will be safe the project will not go ahead.

To put it simply, if it can’t be proven to be safe, it won’t be built”.

Information last updated: Fri 25 Aug 2023