Blair hopes for new nuclear programme

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Indy Politics

The Prime Minister will insist he has not pre-judged the inquiry, saying that it will be a hard- headed look at the pros and cons of replacing the 14 existing power stations, all but one of which are due to be decommissioned by 2023. They currently produce 22 per cent of Britain's electricity, a figure which is due to fall to 7 per cent by 2020.

Mr Blair, who will announce the internal government review in a speech to the CBI's annual conference in London, hopes to reach a decision on how to meet Britain's future energy needs next year. The inquiry will report to Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). He will insist today that the department will investigate the cost, safety and waste-disposal implications of nuclear power with a genuinely open mind.

Mr Blair has been heavily influenced by Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, who believes nuclear power is a vital weapon in the battle against climate change. No 10 advisers are also worried about Britain becoming too reliant on gas imported from Russia. They want to consider building new nuclear plants on the sites of existing reactors and to speed up the planning application process to prevent opponents securing long delays at a series of public inquiries. But the Prime Minister faces strong opposition from Labour MPs, 41 of whom have already signed a Commons motion warning that going nuclear would require "massive public subsidies" that could be better spent on boosting renewable energy sources such as wind, wave and solar power.

Last night, the Government's opponents accused it of pre-judging its own review before it had even begun. Norman Baker, environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "It's a done deal. The inquiry is a fig leaf. The suspicion must be that Tony Blair has already decided to advocate an increase in the use of nuclear power. This review will serve little purpose if the Prime Minister has already made up his mind."

Urging the Government to rule out an extension of nuclear power, he said: "This will provide the certainty that the industry so desperately needs, and will allow us to focus on cleaner renewable energy." He warned that the public subsidies required for nuclear plants would kill off the renewables sector.

Sir Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the Government's Sustainable Development Commission, warned that it would be a "catastrophe" and "extremely foolish" to pre-judge the review.

He said: "Since the general election, we have had a growing spate of commentaries from the Prime Minister downwards that it is almost impossible to meet the challenge of controlling climate change without a nuclear option being brought back into play. This seems to be pre-positioning for a decision taken in advance of a proper review. Frankly, that would be a pretty illegitimate process."

The environmental group Friends of the Earth appealed to the Government not to rubber-stamp a new wave of nuclear plants. Tony Juniper, its director, said: "The UK can meet its targets for tackling climate change and maintain fuel security by using clean, safe alternatives that are already available. But these have so far been underplayed by the Prime Minister, who has fallen for the nuclear industry's slick PR campaign. Will the Government seize the opportunity, or has it already fallen for the latest nuclear con?"

David Willetts, the Tories' trade and industry spokesman, accused the Government of panicking in the face of possible power shortages this winter. He said: "To launch an energy review only now is testament to Labour's failure to tackle the problem a long time ago. A leak from the DTI in May showed that civil servants were calling on the Government to start an energy review, but it has taken them seven months and an energy crisis to get things rolling."

Critics of the nuclear option argue it would not help the Government hit its goal of a 20 per cent cut in carbon dioxide levels by 2010 because it would take too long to upgrade plants or build new ones. But supporters say nuclear could help achieve the more ambitious target of a 60 per cent cut by 2050.