Nuclear power to get green light despite legal challenge

Ministers are expected formally to back a new generation of nuclear power stations in Britain, in defiance of a fresh legal challenge from environmentalists and a damaging revolt from Labour backbenchers. Gordon Brown's first cabinet meeting of the new year is due to nod through the decision next week, and John Hutton, Secretary of State for Business and Enterprise, is expected to confirm it to the House of Commons on 7 January when MPs return from their Christmas break.

But Greenpeace, which overturned the Government's last attempt to usher in a new atomic age when a judge ruled that the decision-making process had been flawed, is confident of repeating the successful tactic. And Britain's top nuclear energy economist, who recently headed a key government advisory committee, has demolished the case for the atom and lent his support to the legal action.

Last night a senior source in Mr Hutton's department told The Independent on Sunday that the pro-nuclear decision, which follows a five-month public consultations, would be made "within days".

He added: "Dozens of individuals and organisations have contributed to the consultation and we have taken account of everything they said. Given the circumstances we will be facing over the coming years, it is inconceivable that we should prevent nuclear from being part of our energy mix."

Mr Hutton will avoid giving any details of the numbers of reactors the Government would like to see built or even give a cast-iron undertaking that any will actually be constructed instead stressing that it will be up to the nuclear industry to come forward with proposals. Any new atomic stations are expected to be sited at existing ones in southern England, such as at Sizewell in Suffolk, Dungeness in Kent, Hinkley Point in Somerset and Bradwell in Essex.

But ministers' hopes that this will put an end to their accident-prone attempts to ensure an atomic future are likely to be confounded. Greenpeace has already written to the Treasury solicitor with evidence that the process has been marred by similar flaws that caused the last decision to be invalidated.

The Government, while confident that it would win any new court case, is resigned to having to fight a new legal action and fears that, if it were defeated again, the whole enterprise will start to unravel.

Professor Gordon MacKerron of Sussex University who until last year headed the Government's committee on radioactive waste management has lent his weight to the Greenpeace challenge, telling ministers that he has "serious misgivings about the legitimacy of the consultation process".

He adds, in a new report, that "the Government's position on the economics of nuclear power is overly optimistic" and that "the risks are very substantial".

The plan is also likely to run into opposition on the Government's back benches. One senior Labour MP said: "I will be voting against this at the first opportunity, and a lot of colleagues will do the same."

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