Britain goes nuclear

MPs give green light to Trident replacement and new-generation atomic power plants
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Indy Politics

Britain will enter a new nuclear age this week as ministers approve the latest generation of atomic power plants and MPs clear the way for a replacement for Trident.

The Independent on Sunday can reveal that tomorrow the Cabinet's Energy and Environment Committee will take the crucial decision to build new nuclear power stations for the first time in 20 years.

This will be followed on Friday by a meeting of the influential Defence Committee, which will demand that ministers start preparing immediately to replace the nuclear deterrent.

Its recommendation - that work must start immediately on designing a new generation of nuclear attack submarines if Britain is not to lose its capability - will fuel a growing row over replacing Trident.

Critics say that updating the nuclear deterrent could cost as much as £25bn and would severely undermine attempts to prevent countries such as Iran gaining atomic weapons, since nuclear powers undertook to reduce their arsenals under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.

The decision to approve new power plants - a dramatic U- turn from the official policy, drawn up just three years ago - will be accompanied by highly controversial "sweeteners" to the nuclear industry.

Ministers will announce that they will shorten and limit public inquiries into the new plants to make it harder for objectors to oppose them and cause delays. And Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is planning to reduce safety controls on nuclear waste.

The go-ahead for around 10 new plants will mark a moment of triumph for the Prime Minister who has always supported nuclear power, even though New Labour was elected on a platform that opposed it. Just three years ago, a Government White Paper setting out the future of British energy policy dismissed it as "an unattractive option".

But shortly before last year's general election, the Prime Minister told intimates that he would use any "political capital" gained in the polling booths to campaign for a reactor building programme. He moved the sceptical Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Beckett from key portfolios in subsequent reshuffles. And he sacked the respected anti-nuclear environment minister Elliott Morley, replacing him with a minister who had described embracing atomic power as a "no-brainer".

Ministers hope feasibility studies into a new nuclear building programme will start rapidly, but actually making it happen will be difficult. Nuclear power stations have not been constructed in the past two decades because they are not economic, and the industry will need inducements if it is to make the massive investment necessary.

Mr Darling wants to put Nirex, the independent nuclear waste body, under the control of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which runs Sellafield.

This would mean that the body which owns Britain's most dangerous waste would be responsible for setting its own safety standards on how it is treated. Nuclear industry sources say that safety would be compromised to save costs and make the reactors more economic.

Friday's Defence Committee report is expected to urge ministers to start work straightaway on commissioning a new submarine class. It is expected to point out that unless some of the design work starts immediately Britain will lose the specialised workforce capable of building a new generation of submarines. "It's as much about jobs as about anything," said a member of the Defence Committee, asked about its conclusions.

The same thinking has already led to the recruitment of scores of young nuclear scientists to the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment to ensure that Britain is capable of producing a new generation of warheads.

Insiders say that a long-planned White Paper setting out the choices has been quietly brought forward to this autumn, a quickening of the pace anticipated by Gordon Brown in his Mansion House speech on Wednesday.

However, he told neither Mr Blair nor Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, about his decision effectively to commit Britain to replacing Trident.

Labour committed itself to taking the decision on what to do about the nuclear deterrent during this Parliament in its manifesto because it will become obsolete in about 15 years. The three-part deterrent is based on Vanguard submarines carrying US-maintained Trident missiles armed with UK-supplied warheads. It is the Vanguard fleet's nuclear reactors that cannot be safely used much beyond 2024 - the US is committed to maintaining the Trident missiles until 2042. So the Government can either refurbish the existing fleet, commission a whole new generation of submarines or develop an air-based system.

Sir Michael Quinlan, who, as the MoD's permanent secretary in the 1980s and 1990s, oversaw the introduction of Trident, said he expected the Government to stick with a submarine-based system. But he said it would be "clever politics" to reduce the size of the fleet, the number of missiles carried and the potency of any new warhead.

He rejected claims that Britain would contravene the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if it updated the deterrent.

Energy policy: Public inquiries to be shortened

Twenty-five years ago, Margaret Thatcher announced a similar drive to build 10 new nuclear power stations, the minimum amount needed to bring about the required economies of scale.

In the end, only one was constructed - years late and over budget - at Sizewell.

Tony Blair's ambition is likely to be even more difficult to achieve because, since then, both the electricity and nuclear industries have been privatised, subjecting the atom to the rigours of the market.

If nuclear power were economically attractive it would already be being built. So some companies have asked for subsidies or a guaranteed high electricity price in the future to make it possible. But Gordon Brown has blocked this. Mr Blair has had to resort to hoping that increasing costs for generating electricity from fossil fuels will make nuclear more attractive. But this would also benefit renewable sources.

Ministers will, however, give way to another industry plea - to cut the length of public inquiries and limit their scope. In the past, objectors have been able to challenge the need for each reactor, and raise concerns about its safety at every inquiry. Ministers want, in future, to decide these issues centrally. As a result, inquiries will only be allowed to focus on such local issues as the landscaping of the reactor. This risks driving opposition into the kind of physical obstruction that bedevilled the 1990s roadbuilding programme

The Government will seek to lessen public opposition by encouraging the industry to build new reactors on the sites of some of the dozen existing ones, where local people have become used to them and benefit from the jobs they bring.