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Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Safer management of our nuclear legacy

Through engagement with research councils and industry, our research helps to clean up radioactive materials and wastes from 60-plus years of nuclear power generation.

The Sellafield site
The Sellafield site. © Sellafield

We work on areas as diverse as locking radionuclides up in minerals to understanding and controlling biomass at nuclear facilities. Our work reduces the risks of environmental contamination, informs plant operations and helps to underpin safe management of radioactive waste. We also successfully train PhD and postdoctoral level nuclear environmental scientists who are employed in the nuclear industry, in academia and as regulators.

Impact on current operations

Spent nuclear fuel is stored in a number of dedicated fuel storage ponds, both at the reactor sites and centrally at Sellafield, and in some cases storage durations may extend to several decades. Biomass in the ponds can be potentially problematic as it can impact on plant operations. Our studies on the microbial ecology of these environments are helping to inform management of fuel storage ponds in a range of UK facilities, minimising plant downtime and potentially helping with decommissioning plans.

Managing mine waste

Uranium mining is needed to produce nuclear fuel and produces relatively large volumes of mine tailings containing naturally occurring radioactive materials. Our fundamental work on uranium and radium interactions with minerals allowed us to help AREVA Mining International, one of the largest U mining companies in the world, to understand the behaviour of radioactive radium in the environment. Together, scientists from Manchester and AREVA Mining International have developed a model that can help predict radium behaviour in iron-rich mine wastes. This work is being used by AREVA Mining to assist with the safe management of uranium mining wastes throughout the world.

Waste disposal

Sellafield has been the hub of the UK's nuclear industry for 60-plus years and leaks and spills of radioactive effluents on site have occurred over that time. This has left a legacy of radioactively contaminated land at Sellafield and other nuclear sites. Sellafield Ltd are looking for non-invasive techniques that will prevent further spread of radioactivity in the sub-surface. Our fundamental work on radionuclide biogeochemistry has allowed us to work with Sellafield Ltd to help develop sub-surface bioremediation strategies to manage radioactively contaminated land on site by cleaning up groundwater.

Additional work on biogeochemistry has also contributed to the Environmental Safety Case and permit for the operation of the Low Level Waste Repository (LLWR). LLWR is the national facility for disposal of the UK's low activity radioactive wastes that include, for example, radioactive building materials, rubble and soils. Our research underpins understanding of the biogeochemical evolution of the wastes disposed at the site and was presented in the 2011 LLWR Environmental Safety Case.

Finally, our fundamental work on biogeochemistry is improving performance assessment models for disposal of higher activity radioactive wastes. These wastes will be disposed of at depths of several hundred metres. Internationally, no geological disposal facility (GDF) for civilian radioactive wastes of this type has yet opened. In the UK, the GDF will take decades to build and is expected to open mid-century. Our work helps in predicting the biogeochemical evolution of these deep underground disposal environments and in turn allows increased confidence in the prediction of how radionuclides will behave.

Supporting policy development and implementation

Francis Livens advises the UK Government on managing radioactive waste and his contributions have led to substantial changes in government policy. As a member of the Nuclear Innovation & Research Advisory Board he also contributed to setting the UK nuclear R&D agenda, now being delivered through the Nuclear Industry Council.