Abstract: We present a new perspective on geological disposal systems for nuclear waste. Geological disposal systems encompass all the processes required for the permanent isolation of highly-radioactive materials from humans and the biosphere. Radioactive materials requiring geological disposal are created by commercial nuclear power plants, research reactors, and defense-related nuclear activities, such as spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors and high-level waste from reprocessing to reclaim fissile material for weapons. We show that disposal systems are so complex that new methods of representation are required. Despite the common call for a systems approach, a broader perspective is needed to obtain an integrated view of disposal systems. We introduce a conceptual formalism of geological disposal systems based on a multi-scale integrated analysis approach. This ‘metabolic’ representation allows one to account for the technical complexity of disposal systems in relation to their broader societal context. Although the paper is conceptual, the integrated formalism can improve the understanding of the complexity of disposal systems and their policy requirements by connecting technical solutions with societal constraints. However, the paper also reveals the limits to efforts to integrate technical and social dimensions of geological disposal systems into a single formalism.