Tony Blair yesterday signalled that Britain may have to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to meet the challenge of climate change.
Appearing before a committee of senior MPs, he disclosed that America was pressing Britain to look again at the nuclear option, including a new generation of stations that some claim will be safer and cheaper. Britain would have to take "some very difficult decisions", the prime minister said.
Mr Blair also revealed that the door to a fresh round of nuclear stations had been kept open in last year's energy white paper at his personal insistence. "I have fought long and hard, both within my party and outside, to make sure that the nuclear option is not closed off," he told the Westminster session.
Even though Mr Blair insisted big political and economic hurdles remained in the way of further nuclear stations, his remarks were hailed by pro-nuclear MPs, but caused consternation among environmentalists.
Mr Blair said the evidence was now overwhelming that climate change was the single biggest long-term problem facing the country, and conceded the world was nowhere near finding a mechanism to cut carbon dioxide emissions by the government's target of 60% by 2050.
He told MPs that there was no way nuclear power could be removed from the agenda "if you are serious about the issue of climate change".
His argument is echoed today in a joint letter to the Guardian from Michael Meacher, the former Labour environment minister, and the former Conservative environment secretary, John Gummer. The pair argue that "a failure to take decisive action at home will undermine the UK's credibility".
Mr Blair said the question did not arise of nuclear power "for decision today but will arise within the next few years - whether as your existing nuclear power stations run down you try and replace that and replace it with the latest technology which round the world is developing in a different way from the generation of nuclear power stations that we have now". He revealed he was being lobbied by the US to look at nuclear power as the best way of cutting carbon emissions.
But Mr Blair repeatedly stressed that no decision had been made in government and the nuclear industry had to do more to meet the public's concerns about safety and costs. "I think we have got to be realistic about this. Unless we overcome these two hurdles our progress will be limited," he said.
Mr Blair's remarks reflect the battle between ministers in the departments of trade and industry and environment. The energy white paper in February 2003 came down firmly in favour of energy effi ciency and renewables being given priority as the best option for Britain's future. Nuclear energy was not ruled out forever but put on hold for at least five years.
In the last six months the debate has been reopened by some environmental gurus such as James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory, who said that Britain and the world could not reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the 60% scientists see is needed by 2050 without the help of nuclear power.
The UK is committed to reducing its 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% by 2010, and is on course to do so. The bigger manifesto commitment made in 2001 to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by the same time was later reduced to an aspiration and looks unlikely to be met. Government policy in the white paper was to get to a 60% reduction by 2050.
The problem with nuclear power is that it is both expensive and the industry takes a decade or more to find sites and get planning permissions. The latest design, the AP 1000, which has been developed by a British Nuclear Fuels-owned company, is not licensed to operate in Britain. Reaction from environmentalists to Mr Blair's comments was amazement. Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "It took months to hammer out a policy in the white paper and nothing has happened since to change the basics, which were that energy efficiency and renewables were the best bet. It would be 15 years before there was one kilowatt of energy from a new nuclear station."