Disposing of radioactive waste from atomic power stations costs the state £7 billion a year, and successive governments have searched in vain for a permanent site to stockpile waste.
There were signs of a possible breakthrough last week when a poll showed that 68 per cent of people in the Copeland local authority in West Cumbria said they would support a storage site in the area.
Copeland is home to the Sellafield plant about 70 per cent of Britain’s nuclear waste. About one third of local people are employed in the nuclear industry.
A local consortium of three local councils and other groups has expressed an interest in taking the idea further.
But Professor Stuart Haszeldine of Edinburgh University said West Cumbria was a poor choice for underground storage due to its porous slate rock.
He told Channel 4 News: “There is water gushing through cracks in the roof of this cavern underground in West Cumbria.
“That same sort of crack allows water to enter into the waste disposal site and that water gradually dissolves the waste and brings it up towards the surface.”
It was never considered in the past by any of the rational scientific procedures.Prof Stuart Haszeldine
He added: “If the Sellafield works and lot of existing waste were not already here, West Cumbria would never be considered for radioactive waste disposal.
“It was never considered in the past by any of the rational scientific procedures, when there were national surveys done.
“The only reason it is being considered now is because the UK government has decided that the local populations should have a much more pre-eminent vote than the scientific evidence. To me that is the wrong way round.”
It could take millenia for radioactive material to get into drinking water supplies – but a suitable site would need to be capable of storing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste for up to 1 million years.