The UK's civil and military nuclear industries are estimated to have bequeathed enough radioactive material to fill the Royal Albert Hall five times over, with a potential disposal cost of £85bn.
Mounting disquiet within senior scientific circles emerged yesterday as the Trade and Industry Secretary, Alan Johnson, launched the much-heralded Energy Review, which is expected to pave the way for up to 10 new nuclear plants when the current ones become obsolete.
Environmentalists claim that relaunching Britain's civil nuclear programme could increase levels of the most radioactive form of waste fourfold. They accused Mr Johnson of launching a "spin operation" in favour of nuclear power after he said "doing nothing was not an option" if Britain was to reduce greenhouse gases and achieve energy security in the face of dwindling North Sea oil reserves.
Some members of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), appointed to oversee the issue, are incensed that Tony Blair has, in effect, signalled a return to nuclear power before making a decision on what to with existing waste.
At present, only 8 per cent of the existing 2.3 million cubic metres of radioactive material has been securely packaged. The rest is in temporary surface storage facilities at 37 sites. It is estimated up to 24 of those, many on the coast, could be at risk from the elements or rising sea levels.
Professor Gordon MacKerron, chairman of CoRWM, said a final recommendation by his colleagues will not be published until July and talk of building new nuclear power stations before then could undermine the process. "People expect the waste issue to be resolved before any decision is taken on building new reactors. That was what we had been led to believe was the Government's position," he said.
"The Government always made a commitment that it will need to solve the waste problem before a rebuild decision. Given that the report on rebuild is expected in early summer it puts pressure on us."
Malcolm Wicks, the Energy minister, who has described the failure to find a permanent solution to the problem as a "national disgrace" sidestepped the question of whether a future waste strategy should actually be in place before a new generation of atomic power stations was given the go-ahead.
Speaking at the launch of the review, he said he accepted "the legacy of nuclear waste" was an issue: "The way governments and parliaments have dodged this over 20 or 30 years is something we shouldn't be proud of in our democracy in my judgement."
But he said the new Nuclear Decommissioning Agency had "a very ambitious programme of clearing up the nuclear waste on existing sites" and added: "With the decommissioning authority, we're well on the way to producing a strategy the public can have confidence in."
Nirex, the newly independent company charged with solving Britain's waste timebomb, is pushing for the construction of a £7bn geological repository to store all nuclear waste. The search for a deep repository was, in effect, abandoned in the 1990s amid public and political concern. Any new project would be constructed 500m underground, and designed to withstand a million years of geological change.
Jean McSorley, a campaigner at Greenpeace who is involved with the CoRWM process, said: "There will be a 300 per cent increase in high-level waste and spent fuel if rebuild goes ahead."
While some low-level waste is relatively easy to handle, the higher-level wastes can remain dangerously radioactive for many thousands of years. Much of the waste inventory - some 241,000 cubic metres - is classified as intermediate. It is made up mainly of bulky items such as contaminated components of nuclear reactors and the metal casings used to house nuclear fuel rods. High-level waste, which is so radioactive it generates heat, comes mainly from the waste products from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. It is estimated to total 1,340 cubic metres - just 0.1 per cent of the total waste by volume - yet accounts for 95 per cent of the total radioactivity of the entire waste inventory.