Ministers will continue to search for a British repository following the latest rejection from Cumbria

By Geoffrey Lean, 8:07PM GMT 01 Feb 2013

Lecture titles do not normally stick in the mind, but one has stayed with me for more than 30 years. “The lion of nuclear fission has been tamed,” it ran. “It remains to clear up what he leaves in his cage.”

A generation has passed since the talk was delivered – by Ned Franklin, perhaps the best atomic industry chief of the day – and the nuclear-waste mess is still festering. Indeed, after this week, there is little chance of it being cleaned up in the foreseeable future, causing it to threaten the health of the beast that produced it.

On Wednesday, Cumbria county council blocked any prospect of a potential £12 billion nuclear waste repository being sited in the only area of Britain interested in hosting one. It thus not only drew a thick line under attempts to find a site, but –  environmentalists and nuclear advocates agree – put a question mark over building new reactors. For none can be constructed unless the Government is “satisfied that effective arrangements exist or will exist to manage and dispose of the waste they will produce”. 

“Ecstatic” anti-nuclear campaigners danced and beat drums: they have long seen preventing waste disposal as a way to halt nuclear power. But the problem has to be solved, and urgently. After all, hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of the stuff has already been produced.

Most of it is intermediate-level waste – ranging from radioactive sludges to irradiated reactor components – which is initially encapsulated in cement. High-level waste, produced in reactors – a tiny amount by comparison, but far more dangerous – is bound in glass. Both, say experts, should end up deep underground through “geological disposal”.