Uranium Dangers: For the Time Being, the Government Will Fudge Nuclear Power, but Tony Blair, like George Bush, Favours Its Expansion. TOM BURKE Gives a Sceptical View. (Energy)

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On 24 January; Tony Blair met a group of ministers and officials in Downing Street to resolve some of the key issues in the long-delayed white paper on energy policy. Among the most difficult of the topics under discussion were the future role of nuclear power in Britain and what response to make to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's challenge to reduce Britain's emissions of carbon dioxide by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050.

There has been a fierce debate within the cabinet on the future role of nuclear power. The virtual collapse of the nuclear operator British Energy late last year has encouraged some ministers to argue that it is time to stop digging this ever deeper pit into which to sink public money. Others argue that nuclear power is essential to maintain Britain's energy security and to meet our Kyoto targets and the further emissions reductions which will be required beyond that. Treasury neutrality on this divisive issue was emphatically communicated at the Downing Street meeting by the promise that there would be no new money for energy.

In summing up the meeting, the Prime Minister said little about nuclear power, but came down firmly on the side of accepting the need to meet the Royal Commission's challenge. This is not as startling as it might sound. Germany, which is phasing out its nuclear power stations, has already made a public commitment to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. France has a goal of a 75 per cent reduction by 2050 and the EU has an aspirational target of 70 per cent by the same date.

Blair's consistent commitment to tackling climate change is not in doubt. Britain has played a leading part in driving forward the global agenda on this issue and is on target to meet its Kyoto commitments. He has also continued to raise the issue in private discussions with President Bush, though without much positive response.

But environmentalists should not cheer too loudly yet. The Prime Minister has not abandoned his belief in the future of the nuclear industry, another faith he shares with George Bush. He is, or at least was until recently, a master at choosing his moment and carefully shaping his arguments to overcome the most determined opposition.

Last year's debacle with British Energy has yet to run its full course. The huge government loan needed to avoid administration for a second major privatised industry is under legal challenge. Even if it were not, British Energy has yet to persuade investors to go along with the restructured company. The prospect of another forced return to public ownership remains real. This is not the moment to try persuading doubting colleagues, or the public, of the wisdom of new nuclear build.

The white paper will actually be a dark fudge colour on nuclear power. Last year's Energy Review by the Performance and Innovation Unit argued, albeit without conviction, that the nuclear option should be kept open. The white paper seems likely to invite prospective reactor builders to make "pre-licensing applications". This would allow BNFL to seek a generic licence for a new generation of nuclear reactors without making a specific planning application. Quite how such an approach could be made compatible with the existing regulatory structure remains to be explained.

There will also be a rather vague-sounding commitment to revisit the issue at some future date. Do not be misled. When the memory of the British Energy debacle has been erased by a convenient war, out will come the climate-change and energy-security clubs to beat the opposition into submission and back will come the calls for new nuclear build.

That Bush and Blair should share an enthusiasm for nuclear power is particularly incomprehensible. Both have risked their political futures on a high-stakes effort to rid the world of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Saddam may or may not have nuclear weapons but, in common with too many other countries to list, he certainly possesses the capacity to acquire them. …