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Outlook: Nuclear power could clean up this time

THE GOVERNMENT needed the coal crisis, a classic confrontation between old and new Labour, like a hole in the head. What it has now got, however, is the added complication of the nuclear industry throwing its twopennyworth into the debate about Britain's future energy needs.

Most of us thought we had seen the beginning of the end of the nuclear experiment in 1995, when the then Government decided it was an uneconomic proposition to fund it with any more taxpayers' money. British Energy appeared to confirm this in the countdown to privatisation by tearing up the planning permission it had for one new nuclear station and withdrawing its planning application for another. The spectre of the nuclear legacy had finally destroyed the argument for it as a fuel source. Game, set and match to the environmental lobby. Or so it seemed.

Now the nuclear industry has turned the environmental argument on its head. It has persuaded investors that decommissioning and fuel clean-up costs of pounds 13bn are an acceptable risk. Furthermore, it has begun trying to persuade ministers that if they are to meet the greenhouse targets that Tony Blair signed up to in Kyoto, then more nuclear power is the only option.

The statistics come tumbling out. Had it not been for the nuclear industry, Britain would have pumped another 51 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the ozone layer last year - the equivalent of half the greenhouse gases released by motor vehicles.

The nuclear lobby certainly deserves to be listened to. Up until now, the debate about Britain's future energy needs has been characterised as a fight to the death between coal and gas. Allow the pits to wither away and in 20 years time we will be reliant upon imported Algerian and Russian gas for 90 per cent of our energy needs.

In fact nuclear could be a much more powerful bulwark against the dash for gas than coal. A new generation of pressurised water reactors would almost certainly mean higher electricity prices but it might also teach us to be more economical with the juice. As for the environment, no-one really knows whether the pay-as-you go policy will be enough to cover the back-end costs when the nuclear stations reach the end of their lives. But what we do know is that right now, they are the clean men of the energy scene.