Energy companies announced plans yesterday to build a string of nuclear power stations across the United Kingdom and the Business Secretary, John Hutton, said Britain was entering a new era of nuclear construction.
In one of the most well-trailed government announcements of Gordon Brown's premiership, Mr Hutton told MPs he was inviting bids for a new generation of reactors. The response from the energy sector – and the country's leading environmental groups – was immediate.
The power giant EDF announced its intention to build four reactors, with the first completed within a decade. British Energy, which operates eight nuclear power plants, said it was considering plans for new reactors on its current sites, while the generating firm E.ON said it was determined to press ahead with new nuclear plants, notwithstanding the Government's insistence that no public subsidies will be forthcoming for the projects.
Environmentalists and some Labour MPs expressed outrage at the decision to allow a new generation of reactors, warning about the long-term dangers of cost and nuclear waste.
But the Tories performed a U-turn, dropping their policy that nuclear energy should be an option of "last resort" and backing plans to allow private firms to invest in the plants.
Ministers said firms would have to bear the full cost of storing any nuclear waste created by the power plants.
Environmentalists said a Green Paper on nuclear power published yesterday had heavily underestimated the cost of building new reactors and pointed to a pledge in the document to meet the cost of protecting the public "in extreme circumstances".
Mr Hutton said he was confident that nuclear power would make a significant contribution to making all of the country's electricity generation carbon neutral by 2050.
"It would be against the national interest," he said, "to rule out a tried and tested technology which is genuinely cleaner than virtually any other form of electricity generation." And it would be "bonkers" to abandon the nuclear option because it cannot provide all the answers to Britain's power needs. Arguing that it should be ruled out because it can't solve all problems was complete nonsense, he said.
Mr Hutton insisted he would not impose an "artificial cap" on the number of new nuclear power stations, arguing it would be for the market to decide whether they were economically viable.
Labour MPs lined up to criticise the new direction. Paul Flynn said: "Why on earth are we repeating the nuclear folly of past years when one power station was 15 years late, and there were vast cost overruns of £75bn in managing the waste. The new thinking on waste is to bury it in a hole in the ground which was the answer 40 years ago."
Chris Mullin, the former Home Office minister, said the nuclear industry had "a long history of misleading the public and previous governments about the costs, safety and aspects of waste disposal".
Colin Challen, Labour chairman of the all-party climate change group, added: "This statement is as full of holes as the Sellafield reprocessing plant."
Under the new Energy Bill published yesterday, companies will have to demonstrate they can fund the full costs of new nuclear plants including their eventual decommissioning. Companies will also have to pay for their waste to be stored or disposed of at a new national facility. Ministers will publish a consultation on waste storage next month.
Greenpeace warned that no nuclear power station had ever been built without subsidy and claimed that government estimates of the cost of building new plants were about half of what the true total will be.
Greenpeace's executive director, John Sauven, said: "This is bad news for Britain's energy security and bad news for our efforts to beat climate change. Nuclear power can only deliver a 4 per cent cut in emissions some time after 2025, and that's too little too late at too high a price."
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "We could meet our energy requirements by investing in cleaner, safer solutions such as renewables, combined heat and power, energy efficiency and the more efficient use of fossil fuels."
The key points
The White Paper contains a breakdown of possible costs, benefits, dangers and environmental implications of nuclear power. The 186-page document is also accompanied by a 300-page summary of responses to the Government's consultation on the issue.It argues that:
* Private firms should be invited to build a new generation of nuclear reactors, possibly opening from 2017
* There should be no cap on the number of future reactors
* There should be no subsidy for building, running or decommissioning costs
* Operators should pay the full cost of storing and disposing of the nuclear waste produced
* Lifetime carbon emissions from nuclear stations are low and the cheapest way of cutting carbon emissions from generating low carbon power
* New generation is needed as 22 gigawatts of nuclear and non-nuclear capacity is due to close within 20 years
* Nuclear will help secure long-term energy supplies as part of a diverse energy sector
* Without it more costly measures would be needed to secure needed cuts in carbon emissions
* A new underground waste storage repository would be the best way of storing waste, but new reactors can be built before a new underground facility is available for use.
* The Bill has plans to triple British renewable energy to 15 per cent of electricity by 2015.