An influential group of nuclear experts has raised the prospect that 10 new nuclear power stations could be built in Britain, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
The official panel has told Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, that the Government should plan ahead in case ministers order a new wave of nuclear reactors over the next 20 years.
The report by the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management will be seized on by the powerful pro-nuclear lobby, which claims new reactors are needed to help Britain cut its emissions of global-warming CO2 from coal-fired power stations.
Its preliminary report to the Government, seen by the IoS, has investigated how much radioactive waste 10 of the most modern new nuclear stations will produce. In a crucial concession for the pro-nuclear lobby, it claims that building and running the new reactors will not make a significant difference to the amount of medium-level radioactive waste that already needs to be buried.
The committee was set up by Mrs Beckett last year to draw up detailed plans for dealing with Britain's growing mountain of nuclear and radioactive waste - a review which is expected to lead to proposals for a massive underground waste dump.
So far, ministers have insisted they have no plans to build any extra nuclear stations at taxpayers' expense but have refused to rule out allowing new reactors to be built by power companies.
Anti-nuclear groups were dismayed that the committee had appeared to downplay the impact of building new power stations. They insist that the radioactive waste they produce far outweighs the alleged benefits to the climate.
However the report also warns that having 10 new reactors would double the amount of spent fuel which would need to be dumped if the Government stops recycling nuclear fuel.
Pete Roche from Greenpeace said: "It's very dangerous for CoWRM to be talking in these terms. Ministers have kept the nuclear option open in case they can tackle the waste problem."
The report - which will be updated for a far more detailed study due to be published in 2006 - could worsen a deepening split in the green movement over nuclear power.
In recent months, two of its most senior figures, Professor James Lovelock and the Right Rev Hugh Montefiore, former bishop of Birmingham, broke ranks by claiming that more nuclear power stations would be needed to combat climate change. Dr Montefiore was then sacked as a trustee of Friends of the Earth.
Gordon MacKerron, the committee's chairman, denied the panel was advocating new stations but said it had to look at what could happen if more were built.
Dr David Lowry, a critic of nuclear power, said CoWRM was being "prudent" by looking at the possibility of new stations. But he said the industry had failed to find a permanent and safe way of storing radioactive waste.