Scientists who want to bury nuclear waste deep in the ground have vowed that the plan will not happen without local support.
Highly radioactive material the size of 6,500 double-decker buses is currently stored above ground at 20 sites across the UK. Some silos start to deteriorate with age.
The Nuclear Waste Service (NWS), a government agency, says burying it in bedrock is a long-term solution to protection from terrorism, war and natural disasters.
It is in consultation with the coastal communities of Allerdale, Mid-Copeland and South Copeland in Cumbria and Theddlethorpe in Lincolnshire to build a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) on the seabed.
NWS Chief Scientist Professor Neil Hyatt told Sky News: “If we make a convincing case, if we provide evidence that it’s safe, and the community wants to proceed, then the decision to do so can be made.
“But the community has the right to withdraw.”
The government is committed to a new generation of nuclear power plants, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announcing budget plans for small reactors this week.
But waste continues to pile up in surface storage silos as public consultation on the location of the GDF is likely to continue for years.
If you can’t find a willing community, there is no plan B.
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Professor Hyatt said: “If we don’t succeed (to win support), the government will reflect on the way forward. But internationally this is the solution.
“We are confident that this is a safe way forward for radioactive waste management.”
What happens if the plan is approved?
If the plan is approved, the radioactive waste will be carried by train into the vast tunnel.
Heavy tanks would be sealed in the bedrock, plugged with clay to keep water out, and the entire complex sealed when filled.
Scientists say the facility will remain stable for the hundreds or thousands of years it takes for radioactive material to become safe.
“I want to make sure the rubbish is put in the safest place”
There was overwhelming support from locals at a public engagement event in Seascale, a village just two miles from Sellafield nuclear power station in Cumbria.
Farmer David Moore said: “Sellafield has delivered huge economic benefits.
“But the community recognizes that now there is rubbish out there and it has to be managed in a safe way.
“We can’t pass it down from generation to generation. I have seven grandchildren and I want to make sure that the rubbish is put in the safest place.”
But there are also some objections.
Retired science teacher Keith Hudson supports geological disposal as the safest solution.
But he feared Cumbria’s groundwater and complex geology would make the site too dangerous.
“They know that the geology is better in the east of the country, where they can build a large enough GDF and do it faster, better and at a lower cost,” he said.
But unlike Cumbria, Lincolnshire has no nuclear industry in close proximity to the proposed GDF site, so it may be harder to make a case to the local community.
“That’s the problem with the whole process. It’s not driven by science or economics, it’s driven by politics,” Mr Hudson said.
The chance of radioactive material returning to the surface is less than one in a million
The NWS insists that any water in the bedrock off the Cumbrian coast that is stationary or slow-moving is not a risk.
It said the GDF was designed on the principle that there is less than a one in a million chance of radioactive material returning to the surface to harm humans.
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Independent scientists agree that this is the best solution to the nuclear industry’s legacy.
Professor Claire Corkhill, who studies how nuclear materials degrade at the University of Sheffield, said: “We’re not just dumping glowing green slime into the ground.
“If you think about the Russian doll concept, you put the trash in a container and it’s surrounded by a cushioning material that acts like a sponge and soaks up all the water. It’s all wrapped up in a hard in the rocks.
“The only way we can stabilize our radioactive waste in a safe and predictable way is by going deep underground.”
Finland is almost finished building a geological grave for its nuclear waste. France, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada also have plans.
The UK wants the GDF to run between 2050 and 2060.