The Low Level Waste Repository (LLWR) has been in operation for over 50 years providing an essential service by managing the UK’s low level radioactive waste.
But even in earlier days, the site near Drigg in West Cumbria was providing a vital service to the nation, as during World War II, it was home to a Royal Ordnance Factory.
At the end of the war, the factory was closed, leaving a legacy of contaminated land that we continue to manage.
In 1957 ownership of the site passed to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and planning consent was granted to develop it as a low level waste facility.
In those days, disposal of low level waste was based on landfill practices, with waste being tipped into clay-based trenches and covered with layers of stone and soil.
Today the disposal trenches have been covered with a water resistant cap and a soil layer with planting of a mixture of grass and shrubs in keeping with the natural environment.
Ownership of the Low Level Waste Repository passed to newly created British Nuclear Fuels Limited in 1971 and the site was managed as part of Sellafield until 2007.
In 1988 a new approach to the treatment and disposal of low level waste in the UK saw the opening of Vault 8, an engineered facility for the long-term management of low level waste. Under this new system, low level waste was placed in containers and grouted prior to disposal in Vault 8.
The transformation of disposal procedures was completed in 1995 when the Waste Monitoring and Compaction Facility at Sellafield and the Grouting Facility at the Low Level Waste Repository were opened.
The new facilities meant that low level waste could be compacted to reduce its volume and grouted within containers ready for disposal in Vault 8 maximising the use of vault space.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was established in 2005 to take responsibility for the decommissioning and clean-up of the UK’s civil public sector nuclear sites.
Ownership of the site transferred to the NDA on 1st April 2005. In accordance with the NDA’s strategy and in support of Government objectives, a competition was launched in 2006 for a contract to manage and operate the Low Level Waste Repository on behalf of the NDA.
LLW Repository Ltd Established
In 2007, to support the competition process, a Site Licence Company (SLC), known as LLW Repository Ltd (LLWR), was established to hold the Nuclear Site Licence for the Repository.
The site was separated from Sellafield and became a stand-alone company.
Planning permission for the development of Vault 9 at the Low Level Waste Repository was granted in January 2008 and construction commenced in September 2008.
In April 2008, UK Nuclear Waste Management Ltd (UKNWM) won the Parent Body Organisation (PBO) competition and took over ownership of LLWR Ltd.
UKNWM was awarded a 17-year Management and Operations contract to operate the Repository on behalf of the NDA.
The contract was split into three periods of five years and one of two years, with the onus on successful delivery of objectives laid out in the contract.
In 2009 the Repository celebrated 50 years of safe operations, and the same year Vault 9 opened, securing continued operations into the next decade.
The UK Strategy for the Management of Solid Low Level Radioactive Waste from the Nuclear Industry was approved in August 2010 by the UK Government and devolved administrations.
The strategy was developed by the NDA in conjunction with LLWR with the aim of providing a high level framework within which LLW management decisions can be taken flexibly to ensure safe, environmentally acceptable and cost-effective management solutions.
LLWR’s 2011 Environmental Safety Case (ESC) was submitted to the Environment Agency on the 1st May 2011. It plays a very important role in determining the future of the Low Level Waste Repository as the UK’s primary facility for the disposal of low level waste.
The objective of our ESC is to demonstrate to the Environment Agency and other stakeholders that it is safe to continue to dispose of LLW at the LLWR Site. It considers environmental safety both now and up to thousands of years in the future.
2012 witnessed the completion of a suite of waste management services designed to assist the implementation of the National LLW Strategy through the application of the Waste Management Hierarchy.
This revolutionized waste management with a switch in focus from 95% disposal of waste directed to the repository in 2009 and only 5% diverted to 85% diversion and just 15% disposal six years later.
New Contract for LLWR
In 2013 NDA awarded UKNWM a further five year contract term to manage LLWR following successful implementation and delivery of key commitments since UKNWM won the original contract in 2008.
2015 proved another big year for the Repository. LLWR was granted a revised environmental permit to allow continued disposal of wastes at the site, and a planning application, which, if granted would secure its future until around 2050, was submitted to Cumbria County Council.
The application, due to be heard in 2016, sought to construct two new vaults and an extension to Vault 9, in addition to a final cap over existing and new vaults and the historic landfill-style trenches.
This may not be the end of the story, however, as the Repository plans to accommodate the UK’s forecasted waste arisings well into the next century, potentially constructing more vaults, if required, leaving a closure date of around 2130.
In LLWR Ltd’s second term, the use of new waste treatment routes has been embedded across the UK.
In addition there is an aim to complete the clear-up of legacy Plutonium Contaminated Materials (PCM) in 2018 and a planning application has taken it a step closer to long-term closure of the trenches and of Vault 8.
The organisation has now turned its attention has turned to a third contract term, which, if awarded, will commence in 2018.
Further innovations in waste management practices are expected to follow.
What’s next for LLWR Ltd? Watch this space.