Editorial: Tough choices on nuclear power

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Britain's energy policy is in trouble. Plans to have five more nuclear plants running by 2025 look like missing their targets without significant foreign investment, part of which, until recently, it was hoped would come from China. But since a Chinese consortium suspended interest in UK projects, the future of the five has looked questionable and pressure is on to lure back Chinese investors or find others.

The Government is getting anxious, and believes it is time to splash some cash around, which is why a U-turn on a promise never to subsidise nuclear power with taxpayers' money is expected in the forthcoming Energy Bill. The Energy minister, John Hayes, is already flagging up a change in policy, saying that the Government is mulling underwriting the construction of nuclear plants. Opponents of nuclear power are furious. A group of academics whose letter we publish today accuses the Government of reneging on its promises not to underwrite nuclear power and of handing over to nuclear power companies the same "blank cheque" that the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, promised back in May to withhold.

Many nuclear power sceptics share those concerns. The most advanced plans for a nuclear plant in Britain are those of the French energy giant, EDF, at Hinkley Point, in Somerset, and there are worries that if EDF scents the offer of Government cash, it will try to up the construction price. The other concern is that underwriting the construction costs of new nuclear plants gives nuclear power an unfair advantage over renewables.

Another U-turn looks lamentable. But the options are not clear cut. As coal-fired plants and old nuclear plants are decommissioned, the risk of a power shortage will grow unless replacements can be found. The prospect of more nuclear power makes many people feel queasy, but it's not enough to leave it at that. If opponents of the current pro-nuclear strategy are to make headway, they must articulate an alternative course more clearly.

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