Blair sets out to sell his nuclear power policy to the public

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Tony Blair will begin preparing public opinion today for a new generation of nuclear power stations.

The Prime Minister is to attend a policy forum where party activists will be urged to engage in a public debate on the "difficult decisions" ahead over nuclear power.

Labour MPs who oppose any expansion of nuclear power claimed last night it was part of a softening-up exercise for the go-ahead to be given for up to 10 new nuclear power stations.

The new plants are likely to be built on existing sites to minimise the threat of a public backlash.

The Government is proposing to streamline major planning inquiries but The Independent has learnt that senior nuclear industry figures also want to strip public inquiries of the power to investigate the safety of Britain's new nuclear reactors.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that officials in the nuclear power industry want ministers to reduce public scrutiny on planning applications in order to keep down costs and secure the support of investors.

Environmental groups were enraged last year when Mr Blair ordered a fresh energy review including nuclear power, which many saw as a foregone conclusion.

Malcolm Wicks, the Energy minister, has promised a thorough review. But Labour MPs last night dismissed this as a "sham".

Alan Simpson, a leading member of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said: "The review is a sham solely for the purpose of providing the pretext for a new generation of nuclear power stations.

"We do not know where or how we are going to store the nuclear waste we are currently generating and a new generation of nuclear power stations would leave us with five times more radioactivity."

Alan Whitehead, a former minister, said: "Downing Street has looked at the options for energy supply after 2010 and based on certain assumptions about how we use energy they have concluded that there is a very big hole and that it would be very difficult to fill it with anything other than nuclear power."

The go-ahead for nuclear power is one of the most difficult challenges Mr Blair faces with his own party, along with increased private sector involvement in the NHS and greater selection in schools.

Mr Blair is to reinforce his message today that there can be no let up on renewal, particularly with the Tories regaining confidence. He will focus on the "reform agenda" at the Labour forum in Nottingham, saying New Labour is in the ascendant, in spite of the resurgence of the Tories under David Cameron's leadership.

He will say that Labour should start 2006 with confidence, and should not surrender the centre ground to either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. "We are a rock of stability around which the waters of the other parties are having to swirl," he will claim. Six policy papers to be discussed by party activists and the public today cover a new British nuclear deterrent, tougher measures on terrorism, an expansion of rural housing, road pricing to curb traffic congestion and pensions reform.

The pressure for nuclear power, however, is becoming one of the most controversial issues that Mr Blair now has to face.

The momentum for nuclear power will be stepped up by Amicus, the white-collar union led by Derek Simpson, on Monday with a warning that Britain needs nuclear power for strategic reasons to protect itself from energy shortages as a result of international instability or blackmail by countries such as Russia. The policy documents warn there will have to be a "trade off" over the environment and energy. They give a clear hint that the option of going ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations could help Britain meet the Government's ambitious target on climate change of reducing UK carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. "All energy options are up for consideration including the role of current generating technologies," say the reports.

Mr Cameron also faces his own test over a decision to adopt nuclear power. His eco-adviser, Zac Goldsmith, recently accused Labour of cosying up to big business and made it clear he was opposed to a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Playing the nuclear card

By Steve Connor

* Generating electricity by nuclear power does not produce carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, which is the strongest environmental card the nuclear industry can play.

The downside is that nuclear power stations produce radioactive waste that can be dangerous for thousands of years. This remains an unresolved issue and dealing with waste disposal may cost £56bn - a figure that will rise if new power stations are built. Nuclear power enables Britain to be more self-sufficient in energy, and security of supply is an important strategic factor. Nuclear power is also a continuous operation that does not depend on wind, sun or tides, unlike renewable sources of energy.

The industry says the last 10 nuclear reactors in the world were all built on time and to budget. Opponents point out that the technology used to generate nuclear power can be used to make weapons.

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