Low level waste

Low level waste (LLW) is generally made up of everyday materials such as plastics, glass, metals, paper etc that have become contaminated by contact with radioactive liquids or powders. The definition of what constitutes radioactive waste can be found in the Radioactive Substances Act 1993.

The majority of solid radioactive waste produced in the UK (by volume) is low level. While most of it comes from the nuclear industry, it is also produced by many non-nuclear industries using radioactive materials including hospitals, universities, research establishments and the oil and gas industry.

LLW sits at the lower end of the radioactive waste spectrum (below high and intermediate level wastes) but it spans a very broad activity range. LLW can be further categorised into Very Low Level Waste (VLLW).

Chapelcross, Dounreay, Hunterston, Torness dispose of around 600m3 solid low-level waste per year, as well as liquid and gaseous discharges. These disposals result in increased levels of radioactivity in the environment, and a very small increased exposure of the population to radiation.

Disposal options

Currently, most low level waste in the UK is disposed of at the repository near Drigg, and some similar disposals were also made at Dounreay.

Insufficient capacity within the UK to dispose of LLW expected to arise from the decommissioning of the UK's nuclear facilities, resulted in the UK Government and Devolved Administrations issuing a new 'Policy for the Long Term Management of Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste in the United Kingdom' in March 2007.

The Policy allows disposals of high volume VLLW to specified landfill sites (including the practice of "controlled burial") and the general disposal of low volume VLLW to an unspecified destination, together with municipal, commercial or industry wastes.

SEPA has a number of obligations under the policy and is working hard to implement them into its systems and procedures. Guidance on the maximum volume of low volume VLLW that may be disposed of will be issued as soon as it is produced, as will the requirements for LLW management plans for the non-nuclear industry.

Disposal is the last step in the waste hierarchy but should this be the only option left then it may include disposal to:

  • near-surface facilities of the kind employed at the LLW repository near Drigg

  • specific areas of, or adjacent to, nuclear licensed sites

  • in-situ disposal (that is, burial at the point of arising)

  • specified landfill sites for LLW and high volume VLLW, including the practice of "controlled burial"

  • general disposal of low volume VLLW to an unspecified destination, together with municipal, commercial or industry wastes

  • incineration.

Non Nuclear Industry National Waste Strategy

Government has set up a Non-Nuclear Industry (NNI) Programme Board to address a lack of available disposal routes for non nuclear LLW. The board is tasked with the principal objective of making recommendations to Government on a national waste strategy for the non nuclear industry.

The first part of the board's work is to oversee the collection of necessary data. It will also consider options for improvements in routine data collection from the NNI, to enable the waste strategy to be updated from time-to-time, and make recommendations for these improvements to the environment agencies.