Britain has joined a major global project organised by the US government to build nuclear power stations, despite ministers' claims that they are neutral about the need for new reactors.
The UK is a key partner in a nine-nation programme to construct new-generation efficient reactors, set up last year by the US government's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology.
The project, called the "Generation IV International Forum", says nuclear power will play a major part in meeting future global energy needs as fossil fuel use is heavily cut under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
The Government's involvement has never been announced – the revelation provides the strongest clue yet that the Government is to propose the development of scores of UK nuclear power stations as a result of its energy review. Britain's participation is a major fillip to state-owned British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), and its initiatives to design advanced reactors, and to British Energy.
Both companies have told ministers that the UK should build up to 20 stations to replace existing reactors to be phased out by 2020, and to help replace coal-, oil- and gas-burning power stations. Nuclear energy currently meets 23 per cent of Britain's baseload electricity supply.
However, the news has led to accusations of hypocrisy from senior environmentalists. Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said it confirmed his suspicions that Tony Blair and Brian Wilson, the pro-nuclear Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) minister who is leading the energy review, were already privately committed to allowing new nuclear stations to be built.
He said Labour was guilty of "deep cynicism ... their message has been unequivocal: there is no economic case for new nuclear stations ... it is quite clear now that the Government is preparing for new build."
Stewart Kemp, secretary of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities group, whose members will be expected to give new stations planning permission, said this suggested the energy review was a "window-dressing" exercise.
The nine governments, which include Canada, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, France. Korea and Argentina, signed a charter six months ago in Paris. The British Government has admitted, in an oblique reference to the forum published by the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit, that one "Generation IV" reactor project involving BNFL is "currently exciting some interest".
The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor is being developed by South Africa's Eskom, in which BNFL has a minority stake. Plans are underway to construct a prototype reactor, which uses a cheap and easily built "off-the-shelf" design.
Britain is represented on the forum by two DTI civil servants. A spokesman for Mr Wilson insisted that the UK was simply "keeping its options open". The Government had made no specific commitments to the forum, and was initially taking part in a two-year review of the state of the global industry and existing technology.