Nirex's nemesis is a petite "backroom girl" at Friends of the Earth, who has spent the last eight years minutely examining its plans. Dr Rachel Western, who describes herself as "an academic dweeb" has almost single-handedly frustrated the company's pounds 200m expenditure on trying to prove its site safe.

"If the Brent Spar battle was won by brawn, this was won by brains - Rachel's brains," said Dr Patrick Green, FOE's senior energy, nuclear and climate campaigner. Her joy is going through endless Nirex reports, which no one else bothers to read, pointing out their internal inconsistencies and finding the scientific flaws.

Now 31, Dr Western was doing her A levels when Sellafield - in a notorious 1983 incident - released radioactive waste to sea, contaminating local beaches. She found that experts airily dismissed her concerns on nuclear waste, and determined to become academically proficient herself.

She did a dissertation on it for her degree, and worked as a volunteer for FOE, attracted by its reputation for painstaking research. The group then helped finance her studies for a doctorate on Nirex's plans.

Her first breakthrough came in 1991 when, arguing with Nirex officials at a conference, one said: "She's right." She says she found this exhilarating, but "extremely upsetting" as she realised her fears were well founded.

Within 18 months she had a dozen job offers from the nuclear industry, rejecting them because "those who pay the piper call the tune". Instead she co-ordinated FOE's case at the public inquiry, after months searching out scientists prepared to risk losing future work from Nirex by giving evidence against it.

"FOE's whole ethos is to search out the way forward rather than just attack things," she says. "That is why they were prepared to let an academic dweeb like me spend eight years poring over reports, rather than giving quick quotes to get headlines."