Secret DTI team gives green light for 10 new nuclear plants

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The Independent Online

A secret team within the Department of Trade and Industry is preparing the case for a programme to build nuclear power stations after the general election.

A secret team within the Department of Trade and Industry is preparing the case for a programme to build nuclear power stations after the general election.

The small group of senior officials, known as Future for Nuclear, has for the past few months examined whether it is economically viable to build new nuclear reactors. A senior Whitehall source with connections to the group said that it had now, in effect, made that case for up to 10 new reactors.

The DTI has maintained that it has no plans to allow the construction of new nuclear power stations because it wants to give renewable forms of energy a head start.

The pressure for a nuclear building programme is not coming from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, who remains sceptical about nuclear power. Instead, the drive is from the Prime Minister, who is worried that without new nuclear plants, Britain will miss its target of a 20 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2010.

Within government, Geoffrey Norris, Tony Blair's special adviser on industry and business, is pressing the nuclear case. It is understood that he was instrumental in the creation of the DTI's Future for Nuclear team.

"Norris has fought hard to keep nuclear on the agenda," said the Whitehall source.

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, is also said to be lobbying for new nuclear build.

Mr Norris did not return calls and Sir David was unavailable for comment.

A DTI spokesman said: "Although nuclear power produces no carbon dioxide, its current economics make nuclear build an unattractive option and there are important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved."

However, in a sign that the Government is planning a debate on nuclear power, he said: "Any decision to build new nuclear power stations would need to be the subject of public consultation and [the] publication of a White Paper on those specific proposals."

It is expected that a government U-turn on nuclear power would require a major ministerial reshuffle. Along with Ms Hewitt, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, is also uneasy about nuclear power. Mr Blair may also want a pro-nuclear Energy minister to replace Mike O'Brien, who has remained neutral on the issue.

Martin O'Neill, the Labour chairman of the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, said: "Nuclear's time is about to come. By this time next year, I expect there to be a nuclear White Paper laying out all the various goods on the stall. My feeling is that the political mood is changing towards nuclear. There are a lot of people who, six to nine months ago, were anti-nuclear who are now changing their positions."

A "process of elimination" would lead the Government to turn to nuclear, as other "green" forms of electricity generation all have their flaws, he said.

Already, some of the world's leading nuclear companies are lining up consortia to bid for the expected nuclear building programme, which could be worth £8bn. The companies set to bid include the French nuclear giant Areva, UK construction company Amec and Westinghouse, the US arm of the state-owned BNFL.

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