Tony Blair's plans for a new generation of nuclear power stations have been thrown into disarray after the High Court ruled that the Government had been acting illegally by staging a "sham" consultation exercise.
Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was dealt a humiliating blow yesterday when he was forced to concede that he will have to start a new round of consultations on nuclear power after Greenpeace, the environmental campaign group, won the case against the Government.
Greenpeace accused the Government of acting illegally by failing to consult properly on its nuclear power plans before giving them the go-ahead. Upholding their complaint, Mr Justice Sullivan criticised the consultation exercise, which lasted only 12 weeks as "seriously flawed", "misleading" and "procedurally unfair".
The consultation document gave every appearance of being simply an "issues paper", he said. It contained no actual proposals and, even if it had, the information given to the public was "wholly insufficient for them to make an intelligent response", added the judge.
The ruling follows allegations in The Independent by two leading scientists that Mr Blair manipulated a report by an independent body reviewing options for nuclear waste disposal to reassure public confidence about the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations.
Mr Darling made it clear that the Government still intended to reach a decision by the end of the year and he cited an article in The Independent by Patrick Moore, a former leader of Greenpeace, in favour of the nuclear programme. Repeatedly pressed on BBC News 24 to rule out nuclear power, Mr Darling said: "We will do the consultation, we will do it properly, but we do need to reach a decision on this.
"Before the end of the year, we have to got to be in a position where we have made decisions. Otherwise, we will have power stations going out of commission and we will not have anything else to replace them with."
The Government was given leave to appeal against the judgment but it is unlikely to do so. Mr Darling said: "I think it might be better just to consult again on the nuclear issue."
The court decision could force the Prime Minister to delay an energy White Paper that was due to be published next month. Mr Blair was planning to present nuclear power as a vital ingredient in Britain's energy programme, both to combat global warming, and to ensure security of energy supplies against the threat of blackmail over gas by Russia or oil by Middle East rogue states. The CBI also warned that the judgment threatened to delay important investment plans in nuclear energy.
Greenpeace's Emma Gibson said: "The Government's so-called consultation was a sham and we are very pleased the judge has agreed with us on that. If Tony Blair wants to continue with his misguided plan for a whole new generation of nuclear power stations, the Government will have to go back to the drawing board."
Alan Simpson, a leading member of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said: "This is an astonishing but fantastic judgment. It shows the Government's energy policy is nothing more than a cover-up for not knowing what to do about the existing waste and a cover-up for a sham consultation... Blair should shelve the plans."
The judgment was described as a "slap in the face" for the Prime Minister's "sofa style of government" by the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, Chris Huhne. "The judgment really shows you can't perform a 180-degree U-turn on a matter as important as nuclear power without a proper public debate," he said.