Britain had wanted the option of dumping the Royal Navy's decommissioned nuclear submarines on the sea bed. There are already six out-of-action vessels, and by the end of the century a further 11 are expected to be taken out of service.
But with three days to run before a treaty deadline expires, Mrs Shephard said that the UK would accept a formal ban under the London Convention. When 45 countries met in London last November a large majority voted for the ban, but Britain, France, Belgium, China and Russia reserved the right to file an objection by 21 February and ignore it. Belgium and France have since sided with the ban.
In a written answer to Labour's environment spokesman, Chris Smith, Mrs Shephard said Britain had not dumped any radioactive waste from ships since 1983. The UK was already committed to a moratorium on sea dumping until 2008 under a different treaty.
'The scientific evidence shows that dumping at sea, carried out under controlled conditions, causes no harm to the marine environment and poses no threat to human health,' she said. 'This has been confirmed by careful monitoring over many years and studies have shown it to be the best practicable environmental option for the disposal of certain types of radioactive waste.
'Nevertheless, the UK recognises that the weight of international opinion on this matter means that such dumping is not, in any event, a practical proposition. We have, therefore, decided to accept the ban,' the minister added.
Mrs Shephard pointed out that there would be a scientific re-evaluation of the ban in 25 years. 'The UK will be ready to reopen discussions in the Convention at any time, should the weight of opinion change in favour of accepting the scientific conclusions.'
Bridget Woodman, a Greenpeace campaigner, said: 'It's a bit of good news. But if they can bow to international pressure on radioactive waste dumping, why can't they respond to all the international concern about the Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant and stop it from opening?'Reuse content