Leading article: Nuclear Power

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The last time the Prime Minister made a major policy decision on the basis of government reports which were not yet in the public domain, it was to take us to war in Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein's deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

The reasons this time, in favour of a dramatic move to nuclear power, would seem to be rather better based than that. But the public has nonetheless every right to raise a suspicious eyebrow at a Prime Minister who seems so determined to pre-empt the results of an energy review by his own government.

Is the cause quite so urgent that it cannot wait a couple of months before publication of that review? Are Parliament and the public quite so ignorant that they cannot be trusted to debate the relative merits of energy solutions? Is the case for nuclear power so overwhelming that it need not be debated at all?

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic "No". A decision of this magnitude need not - indeed should not - be made in a mad rush of a few months. The public can, and should, be trusted with full disclosure of the argument. The balance of judgement is very far from being as one-sided as the Prime Minister makes out.

The argument for nuclear power rests largely on the basis of a perceived "gap" in electricity supplies in 20-30 years' time. Given present estimates of demand, the decline in North Sea production and the unavoidable decommissioning of nuclear and fossil-fuelled power plants, the country could find itself with a shortfall of supply by 2025. Nuclear power, so the argument goes, is necessary both to fill that gap and to enable the Government to fulfil its carbon emission targets.

If nuclear power really were a relatively safe, non-polluting source of energy, that argument would be fine. But it isn't. Nuclear power is dangerous, poses huge problems of long-term waste disposal, is vulnerable to terrorist attacks and is extremely expensive, particularly if you take the costs of decommissioning and waste disposal into account. Nor is it by any means the only way of filling the gap in future supplies. Reducing energy demand by more fuel-efficient vehicles, expanding renewables, producing decentralised power from biomass and other technologies could all prove just as effective, if only the Government would give them the support they need.

Given the dangers and the problems of nuclear energy, it would seem only reasonable to lay out just what the true costs and the other options are before coming to a decision. The fact that the Prime Minister does not suggests that he has already made up his mind and wishes to pre-empt the decision before the public can decide for itself.

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