British coastal towns face a significant danger from tsunamis as huge ocean waves, some as big as 60ft (18.3m) high have hit the UK. These could cause damage to nuclear power stations, oil terminals and ports, scientists have warned the government.

"We believe the government should consider adding tsunamis to the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies," Professor Peter Talling, a Durham University marine geologist, told the Sunday Times.

Previously, tsunamis were not considered a danger to Britain as they are often caused by earthquakes, which are unusual in this country. However, the seismic sea waves can be set off by underwater landslides. These have occurred in the UK at least six times in the past 20,000 years.

Such "submarine slides" could become more frequent owing to climate change and warmer conditions in the Arctic could make them happen in the future.

"They're not on the risk register right now. But they could be more frequent than currently expected, based on the historical record," suggests Talling.

Nuclear power plants need to be protected against any natural disaster, such as tsunamis, that could occur more than once every 10,000 years. Scientists have highlighted the fact that new data shows that the risk of tsunamis is more frequent than this.

The effect of massive underwater landslides causes billions of tons of mud on the seabed to tumble downwards, syphoning in water, which then creates a "hole" in the sea above it. In the vacuum created, water gushes in and a huge wave is formed.

Professor Talling is leading the Landslide-Tsunami Consortium, a £2.3m ($2.9m) research project to assess the hazard posed by submarine landslide-generated tsunamis to the British Isles. According to the study, the UK was struck by two massive waves – 8,200 years ago and half a million years ago.

More recently, in 1580, the Strait of Dover was hit by an earthquake which caused a landslide in the English Channel. Villages in the Dover area were submerged by a tsunami that also sank ships.

The Storegga Slide, a submarine mega-landslide that happened 8,200 years ago in offshore Norway, generated a tsunami that ran up to a height of 6m along northern parts of the UK coastline. A similar event today would cause significant loss of life and massive damage to the country's infrastructure.