A controversial geological disposal facility to store the UK’s radioactive waste is back on the table for Cumbria, with the nuclear heartland of Copeland among the possible contenders.

The publication of a Government paper has kick-started the national search to find a suitable “host community” for the multi-billion pound underground geological disposal facility (GDF).

At this early stage no sites have been earmarked for the huge storage vaults which would be built many hundreds of metres beneath the ground – a major undertaking creating hundreds of jobs and taking many decades.

The Government has now re-launched a public consultation process in response to claims communities were not sufficiently involved last time around and that the process had not been clearly explained.

Cumbria had been in the running to host the GDF back in 2013, but the consultation collapsed after Cumbria County Council withdrew from the process. The development had been met with fierce opposition from groups across the county, who claimed it was not suitable due to the region’s faulted geology.

However, pressure is mounting to find a permanent solution for the UK’s most hazardous nuclear waste, much of which is currently stored at the Sellafield site, with a new fleet of nuclear power stations either under construction or planned.

Richard Harrington, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Business and Industry, said: “The GDF will be a multi-billion-pound infrastructure investment and will provide skilled jobs and benefits to the community that hosts it for more than 100 years.

“Delivering a GDF to dispose permanently of the UK radioactive waste inventory is a responsible public service to future generations and will contribute to the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which identified the key role the nuclear sector has in increasing productivity and driving clean growth.

“There is no preferred location for a GDF and we are adopting a consent-based process to identify a suitable area to host the facility. A suitable site will be determined jointly by the willingness of a community to host a GDF and the suitability of the geology in the area.”

The process to find a location for the GDF will be led by Radioactive Waste Management Ltd, a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, who will work with local authorities and other community representatives to find a suitable location.

The Government has stressed that that the development will only be in a “willing community” and that local communities across the UK will have a “critically important role”.

NuLeAF, the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Special Interest Group on nuclear decommissioning and waste management, has welcomed the launch of the process.

NuLeAF’s chair, Coun Brendan Sweeney, said: ‘We welcome the launch of the GDF siting process as we need a long-term solution to the management of our legacy radioactive wastes.

“As the previous siting process showed, finding a suitable and willing host for a GDF will not be easy. It will require close and effective engagement with councils and communities, underpinned by a joined-up package of jobs, investment and funding for the community and local authority. 

NuLeAF will continue to support and advise any local authority that wishes to enter the process and to work with RWM and Government to maximise the chances of success.”

Speaking at a meeting of the Copeland Council’s Strategic Nuclear and Energy Board earlier this week, the authority’s chief executive Pat Graham warned that the borough will be affected wherever the GDF is based because the waste is “already here” (at Sellafield).

The council will now roll out a programme of member workshops to thrash out a formal position.

A spokesman said: “The council supports the Governments approach to the safe disposal of higher radioactive wastes through the provision of a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) and, as host community for the vast majority of the wastes that would be disposed of in the GDF, we will continue to press the Government to progress the process, recognising the risk to the environment and local communities that the current interim storage of this waste and the continued delay in bringing forward a site for a GDF, presents.

“At this stage, the council has no preference or position with regard to the location of the GDF locally or nationally but recognise that the Copeland community is affected regardless of the final choice of site for a GDF.

“The council takes the view that the current planning assumption date for the provision of the GDF of 2040 is unrealistic and will seek from Government a more realistic timescale and information on what the plans are for long-term storage of these waste materials.”