Ministers are to allow thousands of extra tons of radioactive waste to be stored in the UK, under plans designed to generate an extra £200m for the nuclear industry.
The proposal, to be announced later this summer by the Department of Trade and Industry, will lead to charges that the UK is becoming the world's nuclear dumping ground.
Classed as "intermediate level" and belonging to foreign governments and companies, the nuclear waste will be stored at BNFL's Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria. The DTI will say that the money it generates from holding the extra waste will be injected into the new Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA), which will issue contracts for clean-up work from April next year. The state-owned BNFL and UK Atomic Energy Authority will be awarded the first tranche of contracts.
The DTI's waste plan faces fierce criticism from environmentalists. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats' environment spokesman, said: "Britain is prostituting itself to the nuclear industry. The Government is going for short-term financial gain at the expense of the environment."
Under existing international agreements, uranium and plutonium waste is shipped back to the customer after reprocessing. The DTI's proposals, known as "substitution", would see smaller but more concentrated volumes of waste sent back to BNFL's customers.
The DTI has estimated that, based on BNFL's existing contracts with overseas customers, the extra radioactive waste stored in the UK would have a volume equivalent to that of four medium-sized detached houses. The DTI, according to well-placed sources, believes this would create "no significant" environmental damage.
Around half of BNFL's overseas reprocessing work comes from Japan. The DTI's substitution plans would first require a change in Japanese law. But officials from the DTI's Nuclear Liabilities Unit have already received letters of support from Japanese utilities.
The DTI has just completed a consultation exercise on its plans. The nuclear industry and MEPs were found to be supportive but most environmental groups and local authorities were against the idea.
As well as generating millions for Britain's nuclear industry, the Government claims substitution would lead to fewer global shipments of nuclear waste, which would cut CO2 emissions and reduce security risks.
The Foreign Office has also given its backing to the plans. A DTI-commissioned report says: "There is unlikely to be a discernible distinction between [intermediate and high-level nuclear waste] in terms of public perception. The [Foreign Office] conclusion is that fewer shipments overall would be seen as a benefit in terms of international relations."Reuse content