Tony Blair is rapidly moving from Greenie to realist while denying, of course, that he is doing any such thing
Britain will start building new civil nuclear power stations under plans backed by Tony Blair, The Times has learnt. Less than two years after a government paper called nuclear power an unattractive option, the Prime Minister has become convinced that building nuclear power stations is the only way to secure energy needs and meet obligations to reduce carbon emissions. In a controversial move, he wants planning procedures to be quickened so that the first stations could be under construction within ten years, far earlier than expected, advisers have told The Times.
After first promising a decision on new stations by the end of this Parliament, then by the end of next year, Mr Blair will face down critics and set up a government review within the next two weeks, asking it to reach conclusions by the early summer.
The stations would be built on existing sites in the hope of reducing public opposition and swifter planning and building procedures. They would involve the latest technology expected to be adopted soon in France and the US. Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary and the Cabinet's leading opponent of nuclear power, hinted yesterday that even she would back the move. In an interview with the BBC's Politics Show, she said that, although there were many problems with nuclear power, "I've always accepted we can't afford to close the door on nuclear."
But Mr Blair, who has been given private preliminary studies, believes that all the arguments point to nuclear power and has effectively made up his mind, according to authoritative sources. His decision is a remarkable U-turn.
The review, though headed by a senior figure from the Trade and Industry Department, will report to the Prime Minister and Alan Johnson, the Industry Secretary, and contain members from other departments and, crucially, from the Downing Street strategy unit. Critics will suspect that membership will be chosen to ensure a different conclusion to the last energy White Paper in 2003.
Britain's 12 nuclear power stations provide 22 per cent of the electricity. Unless they are replaced there will only be three stations left by 2020. Studies prepared for Mr Blair by Sir David King, his chief scientific adviser, and other advisers have convinced him that renewable forms of energy, such as wind and wave power, cannot fill the gap. As coal-fired and nuclear stations close they will have to be replaced by gas-fired electricity stations and Britain will soon become a net gas importer.
Mr Blair's advisers maintain that the debate should not be seen as a competition between nuclear power and "renewables", which the Government is committed to boosting.
The nuclear option is unlikely to be opposed by the Conservatives. David Willetts, the Shadow Industry Secretary, said at the party conference: "We must make the case for civil nuclear power to tackle the energy crisis with least damage to the environment.
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