Ministers are preparing to sanction a policy which could turn Britain into the "nuclear dustbin of the world" by allowing thousands of tons of radioactive waste shipped to the UK from abroad to be stored here permanently.
A document slipped out on Friday by the Department of Trade and Industry calculates that the shift in policy could earn between £200m and £650m for British Nuclear Fuels if it kept waste from its Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria rather than returning it to the fuel's country of origin.
However, the document also acknowledges that this would raise issues over where to store the radioactive material because a deep underground repository might not be built until the beginning of the next century. The earliest that one is likely to be approved is 2025, says the document, meaning that the waste would need to be stored above ground.
Environmental groups and opposition parties reacted angrily to the proposals yesterday, demanding an end to reprocessing and the return of all foreign nuclear waste to the country that produced it.
Tony Juniper, the executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Waste reprocessing is an undesirable trade fuelled by an undesirable industry. Whoever creates the waste should get it back."
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, also condemned the proposals: "This is a shocking suggestion deliberately released in a week when the media's attention was elsewhere in an attempt to bury bad news," he said. "The UK already has large amounts of intermediate and high-level waste and this will merely add to the stockpile." The UK's current policy is that all intermediate and high-level waste left over after the processing of foreign nuclear fuel at Sellafield should be returned to its original sender.
The consultative document from the DTI recommends that the UK keeps all intermediate-level waste but ships back additional high-level waste produced in British reactors that would otherwise have to be disposed of here.
The document calculates that the amount of extra waste to be disposed of in the UK would be roughly equal in volume to four medium-sized detached houses. And keeping all intermediate level waste would mean a reduction in the number of international waste shipments by sea and rail from 225 to 38.Reuse content