Proposals for a geological disposal facility in West Cumbria were scuppered in 2013

Third of UK could store radioactive waste underground

Nearly a third of the UK, excluding Scotland, could be suitable for storing radioactive waste deep underground, experts have said.

Faced with growing amounts of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, the Government wants to build a £4bn geological disposal facility that would see containers of radioactive material sunk into boreholes and caverns 200m to 1km below ground.

However, the Government is struggling to find a suitable location after earlier proposals for a geological disposal facility in West Cumbria were scuppered by West Cumbria County Council in 2013 in the face of local opposition.

In an attempt to win people round, a public information campaign is due to be launched early next month, but planning and consultation is set to take so long that the first batch of nuclear waste is not expected to be placed in the ground until 2040.

"It's a substantial proportion. There's a substantial part of the UK that is technically suitable to host a geological disposal facility, but as we found in Cumbria that's only half the problem," said Alun Ellis, science and technology director of Radioactive Waste Management, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) subsidiary tasked with delivering geological disposal.

"The other half of the problem, the more difficult half, is how we overcome the social and political challenges."

Roughly 4.5 million cubic metres of radioactive waste either exists already in the UK or will be generated in the near future and of this, 90 per cent can be re-used, recycled or permanently disposed of in surface facilities.

The remaining 10 per cent, however, could remain a radiation hazard for thousands of years and so the Government needs a long term solution as the waste is currently stored in surface facilities where its safety cannot be guaranteed in decades to come.

Burying the waste deep underground in seismically stable areas could effectively contain the radiation indefinitely and surveys have indicated that about 30 per cent of the UK might be suitable for such geological storage.

"The international consensus is that geological disposal is the safest and most sustainable solution for managing these wastes and also that it is technically feasible," said Ellis.

Evidence has shown better public involvement has led to faster progress towards the establishment of geological disposal facilities - two communities in Sweden actually competed for the right to have nuclear waste buried in their neighbourhood, attracted by the prospect of job creation and economic growth.

Professor Cherry Tweed, chief scientific adviser for Radioactive Waste Management, said: "International experience does show that if it is done properly and efforts are put in to build a relationship with the community there is a willingness and even enthusiasm to host a geological disposal facility."

As a result, the NDA now plans to fully involve the public in deciding where to bury the nuclear waste and early next month communities will be consulted on how to conduct an information-gathering exercise, paving the way for screening potential sites.

Scotland does not form part of the plans because geological disposal is not supported by Scottish government.

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