Downing Street is drawing up secret plans to create a new generation of nuclear power stations as the centrepiece of the Government’s drive to combat climate change. Tony Blair wants to avoid discussing the issue until after the election and the No 10 review of Britain’s energy needs is not mentioned in the manifesto. But a team in the Strategy Unit, led by Lord Birt, the former BBC director general and one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers, is studying whether nuclear power should play a central role in combating global warming.
The unit will produce a report on climate change and how to protect energy supplies from threats – such as oil shortages and a terrorist attack on Middle East pipelines. “They are carefully framing the questions to get the answer they want. The answer to both questions could be nuclear power,” one senior insider said yesterday.
The nuclear industry has already held private discussions with Downing Street about a new generation of power stations. Mr Blair is understood to be sympathetic to the arguments advanced by Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who sees nuclear power as the best way to tackle global warming.
They discussed the issue at a meeting late last year, but Mr Blair said any public debate would have to wait until after the election.
The revival of the prospect of nuclear power has split the Cabinet. Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, are believed to have serious reservations. Some figures in the nuclear industry are lobbying for Ms Hewitt to be moved from her department in a post-election reshuffle.
The Cabinet’s most senior ministers are thought unlikely to oppose the expansion of nuclear power if Mr Blair proposes it.
Geoffrey Norris, Mr Blair’s special adviser on industry matters, is among those said to be promoting the case. “No 10 advisers and people in the Strategy Unit are pushing it very strongly,” said one senior source. “John Birt and Geoffrey Norris, who has the ear of Tony Blair, are looking at this.”
The DTI and the Environment department believe the Government should concentrate on developing renewable energy, to tackle climate change.
The Government has set a target of meeting 10 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2010. Critics of the nuclear option argue it would not help to achieve the Government’s goal of a 20 per cent cut in carbon dioxide levels by 2010 because it would take too long to upgrade plants or build new ones. But supporters say nuclear could help hit the more ambitious target of a 60 per cent cut by 2050.
Backers of the nuclear option are confident of victory but admit the hurdles are formidable. A likely way to finance the move would be a form of public-private partnership but the private sector might demand long-term energy contracts with guaranteed fixed prices, before investing in nuclear.
To limit public opposition, new reactors could be built next to decommissioned nuclear plants.
Yesterday, Mrs Beckett said the construction of new nuclear plants was not the Government’s preferred solution for meeting the growing demand for energy in an environmentally-friendly manner. But she said: “We can’t close down that option. It is possible that, in the end, for climate change reasons, we would need to reconsider that.”
Jean McSorley, senior adviser, nuclear, at Greenpeace, said: “This plan is so far off it is not an adequate response to climate change. There has been a huge amount of lobbying by the nuclear industry over the past year.”