Communities could be paid millions of pounds just to consider hosting a nuclear waste facility in their area, the Government has said.
Community projects could receive payments of up to £1m a year if local people engage with officials about developing a geological disposal facility to permanently store underground the radioactive waste from nuclear power, industry and defence.
The figure would rise to £2.5m a year if drilling of bore-holes to assess the suitability of a site went ahead – money that would be "no strings attached" as the community would still not be tied in to hosting a site.
With the process of talking to communities and investigating sites taking up to two decades, communities could be paid more than £40m without committing to accepting a £12bn nuclear waste facility – with increased payments if it gets the go-ahead.
But while Decc officials said they were continuing with a voluntary approach to the project and all levels of local government would have a voice in deciding on a site, no single level of Government should have a veto – as was the case when a proposed site in Cumbria won the backing of the borough council but Cumbria County Council voted it down last year.
Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said: "Geological disposal provides the secure, long-term solution we need to deal with the radioactive waste we have been creating for more than 60 years, and we can learn from the experiences of other countries who are also doing this.
"Today we're setting out our plan to find a suitable site, based on a fundamental process of listening to people, to make sure we have the right process in place. The area that eventually hosts a geological disposal facility will benefit from significant investment in the community and hundreds of skilled jobs for decades to come."
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) outlined the potential payments as part of its new strategy to develop facilities to safely bury radioactive waste deep underground, which is considered the best long-term option. At present waste is being stored temporarily at secure nuclear sites across the country.
The Government said going ahead with a facility, which would be paid for by the taxpayer and take 100 years to plan, construct, fill and seal off, could also bring hundreds of jobs and economic benefits to an area.
Keith Parker, chief executive of Nuclear Industry Association, said: "This new approach should lead to much greater clarity on the key issues of underground storage, and more effective community engagement.
"This plan will provide a permanent solution to deal with the UK's waste both from nuclear power and other sectors. The local economy which agrees to house the site will also benefit from community investment arrangements, as well as from the long-term job creation such a facility will bring."
Over the next two years, officials will develop the process of working with communities and conduct geological screening across England and Wales to assess the geology that might be suitable for a storage site.
The geological assessment will not identify potential individual sites but it may rule out areas with features such as large underground aquifers, coal or mineral deposits. Communities will be invited to come forward from 2016 to talk to the Government about hosting a facility.
But Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Louise Hutchins said: "This is a bullying and bribing approach by a government that is getting desperate about solving this problem. First David Cameron reneged on his promises not to allow new nuclear reactors until the problem of waste disposal was solved.
"Now he's resorting to bribing reluctant communities just to talk about nuclear waste whilst stripping them of the right to veto it. A better use of this money and political will would be to spend it on the proven clean energy technologies that don't require thousands of years and billions of pounds to clean up."