Landowners across Cumbria can suggest sites for a controversial nuclear waste facility without backing from their local authority.

Anyone with a reasonably-sized patch of land can volunteer it as a contender for the multi-million Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), effectively kick-starting the process, a meeting heard.

However, geological experts would first have to rigorously assess the suitability of the site and the people of a possible host site would have the final say – possibly in a referendum.

The nuclear repository was discussed by Copeland Council’s Strategic Nuclear and Energy Board on Wednesday – the first time members had met officially the Government re-opened its search for a host community before Christmas.
The board agreed to launch a series of briefing sessions to bring members up to speed as the council starts the process of thrashing out a formal position.

David Moore, portfolio holder for nuclear and corporate services, stressed that this was the beginning of a “long journey” which could take more than 20 years.

He said: “Before this council makes any decision it needs to understand the process – and that process is very different to what we have previously had.

“The last one relied on local authorities coming forward, giving either support or not to that process.

“This is very different and can be driven from the grassroots up. Any reasonably-sized landowner can contact the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) or RWM (Radioactive Waste Management) to start to make a forward bid for that.

“They are obliged at some point to ask for local authority support for that, but they can still take it forward without local authority support.”

“Engagement funding” to pay for consulting the people would be available, as well as £1m a year of investment towards local infrastructure.

This figure would increase to £2.5m a year in areas where deep borehole investigations to asses geological suitability have been carried out.

This initial cash boosts would be superseded by “significant additional investment” for the site chosen to become a host community.

Expressions of interest from landowners would trigger the forming of a community partnership which local authorities would then be invited to join.

But only organisations within the partnership would have a say, so a council choosing not to be a member would have no power of veto.

Because the waste is already stored in Copeland, the meeting heard that the borough is already a host community and will be affected regardless of the outcome.

Ultimately, Copeland will either remain a host site or the nuclear waste will have to be moved elsewhere in the UK which comes with logistical, cost and safety implications of its own.

But even if the Government hits its target, no waste would go into the repository before 2040, allowing 20 years for the pre-planning process.

The plans caused huge controversy in West Cumbria when first mooted, before being rejected by Cumbria County Council in 2013.

Public opinion was split at the time, with geologists and environmental campaigners making impassioned pleas to reject the plans.

The nuclear waste repository could potentially be based anywhere in Wales, Northern Ireland or England.

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