Leading article: The nuclear challenge

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The Independent Online

Our leaders are slipping the nation stealthily into a new nuclear age. Tomorrow, a cabinet committee will formally commit the Government to building new nuclear power stations, a decision that will be announced publicly next month at the conclusion of the "review" of energy policy. On Friday, the all-party Defence select committee will publish a report saying that the decision on whether to replace the Trident nuclear weapons system must be made this year. Last week, Gordon Brown, the likely next prime minister, indicated in his Mansion House speech what that decision would be.

In neither case, civil or military, is this the way to make a decision of such national moment. The Prime Minister's energy review increasingly looks like a transparent device to marshal the arguments behind a decision already made. We are familiar with this style of politics. Tony Blair once said (about plans to reorganise Scottish regiments): "We will have an opportunity to have a proper debate once the decision is made."

Of course, the Government's permission is not required for a debate, and the arguments for and against Britain's continuation as a nuclear power have been extensively aired. The changing contexts of both the energy and the weapons decisions have been widely discussed. The increasing urgency of the threat of global warming. The rise in the price of oil to its highest level in real terms. The unwinding of the Cold War and the emergence of new possible sources of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Yet if the Government is so sure of its case, then it ought to be confident that it would survive a more open and deliberative decision-making process. This could even involve - an old-fashioned idea, we know - open-ended, set-piece debates in the House of Commons. As it is, the impression lingers that the Prime Minister and his would-be successors fear that their case would not survive robust scrutiny.

The Independent on Sunday remains unconvinced by the case for reversing the gradual phase-out of nuclear energy in this country. We do not believe that nuclear power should be an early part of the response to climate change. It would make too small a cut in carbon emissions to justify the risk of providing terrorist targets and the distraction from saving energy.

On Trident, the case for keeping the option of replacement open is more persuasive, even if the urgency over a system planned to last for another 19 years may seem suspect. Yet it is vitally important that the argument is made first and foremost in the context of Britain's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Any successor to Trident should have significantly fewer warheads - otherwise how can Britain justifiably urge restraint on other countries?

The most depressing aspect of Mr Blair's and Mr Brown's stealthy creep towards new nuclear weapons, however, is their jealous guarding of Labour's shameful tradition of undemocratic secrecy. On issues as important as nuclear weapons and nuclear energy there should be no question that the debate should be as open as possible and that the House of Commons should decide.

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