Secret plans to postpone solving Britain's nuclear waste crisis for up to 1,000 years are being drawn up by the nuclear industry, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The government-owned British Nuclear Fuels is developing a scheme for indefinitely storing the intensely dangerous material in giant "millennium domes" around Britain, leaving it for generations far into the future to work out what to do with it.
The scheme - to be floated at a closed meeting of nuclear experts and local authority officials in London this week - runs counter to conventional wisdom. Most experts insist that the safest way of dealing with highly radioactive wastes is to bury them at least 900 feet underground. Storing them increases the chances that they will leak out, leading to health risks and making them vulnerable to terrorists.
But the idea is gaining support in Whitehall, following 30 years of failure to find a disposal site in Britain. Ministers insist that plans for dealing with the waste must be agreed before any more nuclear power stations are built.
Last week, Nirex, Britain's independent nuclear waste agency, published a shortlist of 12 locations drawn up for the last attempt to solve the problem, which ended in failure in 1997 when the then Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, rejected the favoured site near the Sellafield nuclear complex. Ministers are due to launch a new search next year.
The BNFL scheme is likely to prove even more controversial. It envisages building several concrete domes in different regions of the country for so-called "interim long-term storage" of the wastes. The domes would be designed to last up to 1,000 years and would be buried just under the surface of the ground under a layer of rubble or earth. They could be built almost anywhere, though would most likely be sited at existing nuclear power plants.
"They look exactly like the Millennium Dome," said one top official who has seen the plans. "And they seem just as bad an idea."
Proponents of storing waste say that we do not yet know enough about how to dispose of it safely deep in the ground, and that future generations are likely to be able to do it better.
France, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Belgium are all following the traditional strategy by investigating sites for deep burial.
British Nuclear Fuels said that the scheme was the result of "looking at new, innovative ways of doing things" as part of drawing up "a broad range of options".
Sellafield leak casts doubt on nuclear expansion, says minister
The leak of tens of thousands of litres of spent fuel at Sellafield is preventing ministers from making the case for new nuclear power stations, Alan Johnson has told The Independent on Sunday.
The new Trade Secretary says the official investigation into the incident, in which nuclear liquid gushed unnoticed from a broken pipe for nine months, will be "very important" in deciding whether to press ahead with plans for up to 20 new plants.
In an interview with this newspaper, Mr Johnson gave a clear signal that he is increasingly reluctant to make the case for nuclear power, preferring instead to stress the potential of renewable energy sources.
"The Prime Minister has said we will make a decision within the lifetime of this Parliament on whether we go any further down the nuclear road."
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is expected to decide this week whether to press for a criminal prosecution after completing a preliminary investigation into the Sellafield incident.
Mr Johnson also has a tough message for those who are pressing for carbon-free energy sources but object to new wind farms. "These aesthetic issues are very proper considerations, but people can't both want to head down the renewable track and then oppose its results."
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