British Energy, the privatised nuclear generator, has told ministers that they may have no option if Britain is to meet its target for cutting greenhouse gases.
The move, which has astonished Whitehall officials, comes as ministers prepare to meet electricity generators to thrash out a deal to save the coal industry from extinction at the hands of nuclear and gas-fired power stations.
Building a new generation of nuclear stations would almost certainly mean higher electricity prices as it is unlikely that the Government would agree to any public subsidy.
Several ministers are understood to have given British Energy a sympathetic hearing. However, a core group of Cabinet ministers, led by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and the President of the Board of Trade, Margaret Beckett, are likely to baulk at anything which could seal the fate of Britain's remaining 23 deep coalmines.
The safety of nuclear energy is another concern. Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "The safety issues have still not been resolved, and every study has concluded it is not financially viable, once you take into account the costs of decommissioning."
British Energy has eight nuclear stations, the first of which, Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B, will start being decommissioned in 2011. But the company has told ministers that decisions on the role to be played by nuclear power in Britain's energy policy will need to be taken long before then as it could take 10 years to construct more nuclear capacity.
Next month the Government will announce the results of a six-month review into how future electricity demand will be met. The energy review was launched just before Christmas as a way of throwing a lifeline to the coal industry, which is facing the threat of seven to eight pit closures and the loss of 6,000 jobs. But the bigger problem ministers are grappling with is how to prevent Britain from becoming dependent on gas to fulfil as much as 90 per cent of its energy needs by 2020.
John Battle, the Energy Minister, told a coal industry conference yesterday that it was right to question whether Britain could be comfortable with a "mono-fuel source future" in which it could be dependent for some of its gas supplies on volatile countries such as Russia and Algeria.
British Energy's chief executive Peter Hollins said yesterday that nuclear power had a vital role to play in the future: "The only reason that the UK has met its Kyoto targets is because of the contribution of nuclear power. If Britain is to take its greenhouse gas targets seriously, then nuclear power has got to have a significant role in future energy generation."Reuse content