By Susanna Twidale
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain wants to develop a geological storage site for high level radioactive waste and launched a public consultation on Thursday to solicit communities prepared to host the facility.
Around 20 percent of Britain's electricity comes from nuclear plants, which produce radioactive waste that can remain harmful for thousands of years and must be stored safely.
Britain also plans to build a new fleet of nuclear plants, starting with EDF's Hinkley Point C project, to replace aging nuclear reactors and coal plants coming offline in the 2020s.
A geological site would see radioactive waste buried at least 200 meters underground in a rock formation that protects it and acts as a barrier against the radioactivity escaping.
"We owe it to future generations to take action now to find a suitable permanent site for the safe disposal of our radioactive waste... Planning consent will only be given to sites which have local support," Richard Harrington, a minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said in a statement.
Around 80 percent of Britain's nuclear waste is currently stored at the Sellafield nuclear plant site in Cumbria, in the northwest of England.
A new geological disposal facility could create up to 2,000 jobs and bring at least 8 billion pounds ($11 billion) to the economy over its lifetime, BEIS said.
The consultations, which apply to England, Northern Ireland and Wales, are open to everybody and will run for the next 12 weeks, BEIS said.
The Sellafield plant is over 60 years old and some nuclear experts have said geological storage sites are a better storage solution for the future.
"A geological disposal facility is widely accepted as the only realistic way to dispose of higher activity nuclear waste for the long term," Iain Stewart, director of the Sustainable Earth Institute, Plymouth University said in the BEIS statement.
Environmentalists criticized the plan.
"Since there is no permanent solution for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel, the responsible thing to do would be to stop producing more of it instead of just passing the radioactive buck to future generations," Greenpeace UK chief scientist Doug Parr said.
Scotland is excluded from the consultation as its devolved government has a policy that radioactive waste should be stored in near-surface sites, rather than be buried underground.
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(Reporting By Susanna Twidale; Editing by Susan Fenton)