David Prosser: How long until the lights go out?

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The Independent Online

Outlook One accusation frequently levelled at the Labour administration by the Conservatives was that ministers were moving so slowly on developing energy policy that Britain could see the lights go out. In that context, the decision to give energy policy to one of the five Liberal Democrats offered a cabinet seat looks a curious one.

There is much on which Chris Huhne and his new Conservative colleagues will agree – the need for a green investment bank, for example, and the refusal to countenance the building of a third runway at Heathrow. On one issue, however, the Lib Dems and the Tories remain poles apart: the role of nuclear power in the generation of electricity in Britain.

The coalition agreement explains how there can be resolution of the problem that the Tories want to replace the nuclear power plants due to be closed over the next 10 years, while the Lib Dems don't. The latter will be given free rein to speak out on the issue when legislation comes forward, with MPs allowed to abstain on the relevant votes. Since Labour supports nuclear power, the Tories can give that concession knowing they'll still get their way.

It's an elegant solution for the MPs of both parties, but surely Mr Huhne is going to find himself in an impossible position. He surely can't be expected to drive forward implementation of a policy to which he and his parliamentary colleagues are so opposed. Somehow one feels that this is not an issue the new Energy and Climate Change Secretary is going to be in much of a hurry to address.

Britain can't afford too much of a delay, however. The lead time on nuclear power is such that dithering now could cause real difficulties in five to 10 years' time. That's an argument that you can expect EDF, which spent £12.5bn buying British Energy only 18 months ago, to make at its earliest opportunity in the weeks ahead.

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