The Government has confirmed plans to reform the law on radioactive waste in the Strategy for the management of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) Waste in the UK, published on 21 July 2014.

The NORM waste strategy has been jointly adopted by the UK administrations. Its aim is to facilitate the sustainable and efficient management of Low Level Radioactive Waste in the UK, in line with the waste hierarchy (to prevent, reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover waste with disposal as a last resort).

What is NORM waste?

NORM waste can arise when naturally occurring radioactive elements become concentrated through industrial activities.  The strategy will be most relevant to companies involved in mining and extractive industries (such as oil and gas, uranium and iron and steel production), as well as manufacturing industries where NORM waste is generated as a bi-product of processing minerals. Businesses involved in remediating land contaminated with radioactive substances will also be affected by changes to the NORM regulatory framework.

NORM waste is currently regulated by the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 and the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 in Scotland and Northern Ireland (as amended). Operators must ensure that any sites receiving NORM waste have appropriate permits.

The strategy

  • The strategy aims to ensure that secure, sustainable and resilient NORM waste management options are available in the UK. It focuses on three main goals:

Exposure of radiation to the public over and above natural background levels is subject to regulation.  The regulatory framework in the UK is derived from international standards and these standards have not always dealt with NORM waste in a uniform way.  This has led to ambiguities in the regulation of NORM waste across Europe.  In 1996, the EU adopted a revised Basic Safety Standards Directive (BSSD) which provides flexibility for Member States in respect of activities producing NORM wastes.  The latest changes to the BSSD (completed in 2013) apply minimum safety standards across the EU and make it clearer when NORM waste may be exempted from regulatory control. The UK must implement the changes introduced by the new BSSD by 6 February 2018.

Prior to the implementation of the BSSD, the Government will carry out a review of the existing domestic regime and radiation dose limits that apply to NORM Industrial Activities.  Necessary changes to domestic NORM regulation will be made in a single revision at the point of BSSD implementation.

  • Identify and remove policy barriers to the development of waste treatment and disposal facilities

A country generating NORM waste may only produce limited quantities and may be unable to develop treatment technologies on a commercial scale.  To address this, the strategy aims to improve the policy and legislative framework for the import and export of NORM waste to remove barriers to the development of treatment and disposal facilities. The Government considers it to be a benefit for industries to have access to treatment facilities abroad and likewise for the UK to be able to offer NORM treatment services provided that relevant legislation and policy considerations are complied with.

  • Developing good data and information about current and future waste arisings

The strategy recognises the need for comprehensive data on NORM waste arisings as well as the capacity of treatment and disposal facilities. Current data is obtained from the voluntary reporting of select companies, and remains unreliable - particularly for the forecast quantities of waste generated from the unconventional oil and gas industry. The Government will require environmental regulators to work with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and DECC to assess any gaps in NORM data and improve future data collection.

The consultation

The consultation process was led by the Scottish government, which launched the draft strategy in February 2014. Click here to read our article on this the consultation.

Implications for the oil and gas industry

The strategy covers all forms of NORM waste, solid, liquid and gas, regardless of activity level.

As previously reported the strategy spells the potential end to the disposal at sea of solid NORM waste that arises from the maintenance and cleaning of offshore equipment for the Oil and Gas sector. This would lead to an increase in solid NORM waste being brought ashore; meaning operators may need to consider alternative options for dealing with NORM waste. This is likely to increase costs for waste handling, especially when contemplating decommissioning activities.

There also remains much uncertainty over the quantity and radiological characteristics of liquid NORM waste that would be generated from shale gas extraction, as this industry is still in its infancy.

Next steps

The HSE is currently working with DECC and other government departments as well as the devolved administrations to review implementing regulations for the NORM strategy.  The Government will continue to gather data on both operational and decommissioning NORM waste arising to assess the future capacity of NORM waste management facilities.

Operators handling NORM waste should keep a close watch of the government's review process between now and 2018, when the revised regulatory regime is due to come into force, as this could impact their permit conditions.