Protest as Blair confirms nuclear option in energy review

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair today announced that the Government's long-awaited energy review will consider whether Britain should commission a new generation of nuclear power stations.

The Prime Minister's speech to the CBI conference was delayed and moved to a smaller room after Greenpeace protesters climbed up inside the roof of the hall where he had been due to make his speech. They threatened to heckle him.

Mr Blair finally delivered his address to delegates 48 minutes late as they crowded into a nearby room, joking: "This is going to be a surreal occasion."

Speaking from a hastily-erected podium, he finally confirmed details of the energy review.

He said: "The issue back on the agenda with a vengeance is energy policy. Round the world you can sense feverish re-thinking.

"Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency."

Mr Blair went on: "I can today announce that we have established a review of the UK's progress against the medium and long-term Energy White Paper goals.

"The Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks will be in the lead, with the aim of publishing a policy statement on energy in the early summer of 2006.

"It will include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

"In Britain, on any basis, we also have the issue of our transition from being self-sufficient in gas supply to being an importer.

"Energy companies are making huge investments - £10 billion in total - in the infrastructure needed to import and store gas.

"Some of that infrastructure is already open - such as the doubling of the capacity in the interconnector from Belgium and the LNG facility at the Isle of Grain. Even more will follow in the next couple of years.

"But this winter, if it is as cold as the Met Office suggests it may be, our gas market will be tight.

"For our domestic gas customers and most businesses, the National Grid is clear there would not be a problem.

"But for big gas users, Ofgem, the National Grid, energy suppliers and the DTI have all been and will be working to make sure business is aware and ready."

The Prime Minister smiled and joked with the delegates before delivering his speech and said he wanted to apologise to the businessmen and women for the disruption.

The delegates stood packed together in the small hall straining to hear the Prime Minister, who was accompanied by the prime ministers of Estonia and the Czech Republic.

Mr Blair said he believed the offer to the Greenpeace protesters to allow them to ask the first question after he had made his speech was "very reasonable".

He went on to say that nuclear power was a "difficult and challenging" issue.

"What we need is a serious debate, not one conducted by protest or demonstration to stop people expressing their views."

He turned to the two eastern European prime ministers and said they were doing a tough job and knew all about the fight for free speech.

Mr Blair went on to deliver his planned speech, announcing the expected review into energy.

He said he understood business concerns about the deal covering the pensions of millions of public sector workers but stressed to the business leaders that the Government would be achieving savings of £13 billion.

He added that because of the 10% annual turnover in staff every year, most civil servants would be retiring at the age of 65 in little more than 10 years' time.

Mr Blair struggled to be heard because of a malfunctioning speaker system and at one point he turned to the prime minister of Estonia and joked: "It is not always like this."

On the subject of energy, he said it was important to decide whether a new generation of nuclear power stations should be built.

The Prime Minister spoke for around 20 minutes and then answered questions from a couple of delegates about the future of the economy and North Sea oil.

He was also asked if he had ever considered crossing the House of Commons to join the Conservative Party.

He replied that it would be good for politics if there was a "more sensible" opposition, although he added that it remained to be seen whether that would happen.

He also assured delegates that he would not give up the UK's rebate from the European Union without reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

He received warm applause from delegates at the end of his speech.

The conference was due to resume later this morning following the disruption caused by the Greenpeace protest.

The two protesters voluntarily ended their protest after the Prime Minister had delivered his speech.

They were led away from the conference centre by police and said they had not been told if they would be facing any charges.

John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said today's protest was a "disgrace" but added that security would now have to be reviewed.

"We run an open conference and our objective is to allow people to have a proper debate.

"The business community is prepared to engage in real debate and I think this has been a disgraceful display by Greenpeace.

"Obviously we will need to review security. Security in this centre is tight but there are other businesses based here."

A Greenpeace spokeswoman said: "We are launching the fightback against a new nuclear era in the UK by trying to prevent Tony Blair from giving his planned speech at the conference."

She named the protesters as Huw Williams and Nyls Verhauelt.

CBI director general Sir Digby Jones said the protesters had demanded the right to make a 10-minute speech before Mr Blair, which the CBI refused to concede.

He said the premier had been prepared to go ahead and speak anyway, despite the threat of heckling and further protests.

In the end, delegates moved to a smaller hall in the Islington conference complex and crowded round to hear Mr Blair deliver his address.

The Prime Minister predicted there would be "a binding international agreement to succeed Kyoto that will include all major economies".

He went on: "The future is clean energy. And nations will look to diversify out of energy dependence on one source.

"We will meet the Kyoto targets but we have recently seen an increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

"They are projected to rise further between 2010 and 2020. By around 2020, the UK is likely to have seen decommissioning of coal and nuclear plants that together generate over 30% of today's electricity supply.

"Some of this will be replaced by renewables but not all of it can."