Tony Blair has agreed to the building of a new generation of nuclear power stations on the grounds that they would guarantee energy supplies and tackle climate change.
A government review of energy policy, to be published in July, will recommend a mix of three components a new lease of life for nuclear power, an expansion of renewable sources such as wind, wave and solar power and an energy efficiency drive by business and individuals.
In a speech last night, the Prime Minister foreshadowed the review by saying the replacement of Britain's nuclear power stations is "back on the agenda with a vengeance". He also promised a "big push" on renewables and a "step change" to boost energy efficiency.
The first draft of the review, headed by the Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, was shown to Mr Blair and other cabinet ministers on Monday. Mr Blair said that, without a policy change, by 2025 there would be a "dramatic gap" in Britain's efforts to hit its targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The country would also be heavily dependent on gas, moving from a position where it produced 80 to 90 per cent of its needs to relying on foreign imports for the same proportion, mostly from the Middle East, Africa and Russia, he said.
"If we don't take these long-term decisions now, we will be committing a serious dereliction of our duty to the future of this country," Mr Blair told the CBI's annual dinner. He presented the energy policy as an example of difficult decisions that required "faith in long-term gain to triumph over the certainty of short-term pain" and said he " fully intended" to take them.
"Not a single difficult decision I have taken in government hasn't resulted in predictions of disaster, shrieks of outrage and determined resistance. But the urgency is begotten of the scale of the challenge."
Mr Blair hopes that including a push on renewable energy will reduce the controversy over his decision to go for the nuclear option, but is convinced that renewables alone will not plug the energy gap.
However, the three-pronged approach will not allay fears of critics, who claim that going nuclear will leave insufficient money for a big expansion of renewables. These include Elliott Morley, the sacked former environment minister, who spoke for the first time yesterday since his dismissal a fortnight ago.
"If the review was open, transparent and fair, looking at the options on economic grounds across a whole life cost assessment of nuclear stations, the solution may well point to renewables," he told The Guardian.
Other opponents of nuclear power also cite the cost, safety fears, including possible terrorist attacks, and the £70bn clean-up costs of the existing plants. They believe the review has been a device to cover Mr Blair's private decision to go for the nuclear option.
Other Labour MPs also expressed their outrage. Alan Simpson, a leading member of the left-wing Campaign group of Labour MPs, said: "It's not just an absurdity, it is an affront to the whole democratic process. Blair has conducted an inquiry in his own head with his own lobbyists and come to his own conclusion."
Stephen Tindale, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said: "The Prime Minister obviously made up his mind about nuclear power some time ago. The review is a smokescreen for a decision that has already been taken."
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said the review had been a complete sham. "It's clear Tony Blair is fixated with nuclear power. Rather than backing safe solutions for tackling climate change and meeting our energy needs, he seems intent on trying to waste yet more taxpayers' money on a discredited nuclear dinosaur."
Kate Hudson, the chairman of CND, said nuclear power did not make economic or environmental sense, whereas investment in sustainable energy did.
Can we not just use coal, oil or gas?
Britain's reserves of natural gas and oil have probably passed their peak and will start to run out over the coming decades. To fill the gap we are having to buy gas and oil from other countries, but unfortunately these are not the most friendly or stable places in the world.
Russia could supply much of our needs but future governments might worry strategically about security of supply. The events this winter, when Russia shut down supplies to the Ukraine, showed how vulnerable energy customers can be to political pressure. An equally important reason for not buying fossil fuel from abroad is the Government's commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide because of global warming. This is one of the arguments in support of rebuilding nuclear power stations, which do not produce carbon dioxide.
So what have we got against nuclear power?
Nuclear power stations may be good for climate change, but they still produce toxic waste which can remain radioactive and dangerous for thousands of years. Britain has yet to decide on what to do with the radioactive waste that has built up from nearly 50 years of nuclear power. Another important issue concerns safety and nuclear proliferation.
Chernobyl showed that a nuclear accident can be devastating - and does not respect national borders. If Britain goes ahead with new nuclear power stations, why shouldn't other countries in Africa, Asia and South America do the same? A world with thousands of nuclear power stations may not be as safe as a world with a few dozen.
Steve ConnorReuse content