UK ministers have ended a 20-year standstill on nuclear power by giving the go-ahead to a new generation of reactors to help cut the pollution that is disrupting the climate.
And the government has given the first indications of where up to 10 nuclear stations are likely to be built, at a cost of £1.2 billion ($2.4 bn) each. An expert report identifies the best sites as being next to existing reactors around the south coast of England, with Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk topping the list.
The UK government's change of heart on nuclear power will be heralded by the industry as part of a global nuclear renaissance, which has already seen plans for more than 30 new reactors in the US. But it will be condemned by some politicians and environmentalists as the wrong solution to climate change.
Speaking in advance of the launch of the delayed energy policy paper on Wednesday, the trade and industry secretary, Alistair Darling, said it would be a "profound mistake" to rule out nuclear power. "The facts have changed," he told the BBC, "and when the facts change, you change your mind."
The policy paper overturns one produced by the government in 2003, which concluded that nuclear power was "an unattractive option". No nuclear station has been built in the UK since a pressurised water reactor was given planning approval at Sizewell in 1987, and the government is still trying to work out how to dispose of nuclear waste.
Darling argued that new reactors were now necessary because they would reduce future dependence on Russian gas, as well as being low carbon emitters. "We do not want to place ourselves at the whim of countries which may or may not decide to supply us," he said.
The minister also promised to boost energy efficiency by cutting wastage while machines are left on stand-by and by encouraging 'smart meters'. "We will triple the amount of electricity we get from renewables by 2015," he said. "We want to lead in the development of carbon capture and storage."
The policy paper was delayed after a high court ruling that a previous public consultation on nuclear power was "misleading and procedurally unfair". At the same time as giving political backing to a new nuclear programme, the government is having to launch another public consultation.
But resurrecting nuclear power was attacked as "a bad strategic mistake" by Jeremy Leggett, a solar energy fellow at Oxford University, UK. "It will divert much-needed resources, and focus, away from the genuine survival technologies identified so clearly in the 2003 energy white paper: renewables and efficiency," he said.
Location, location, location
Alongside the energy paper, the government has also released a highly sensitive report on the siting of new nuclear stations in the UK. Prepared by an independent nuclear consultant, Ian Jackson, with government and industry experts, it was issued to New Scientist today in response to a request under freedom of information legislation.
It shows that good electricity grid connections make Hinkley Point and Sizewell the two sites best suited to accommodate either a 1600-megawatt single reactor, or a 3200-MW twin-reactor station. Seven other coastal sites are also given the green light for single reactors: Bradwell, Dungeness, Hartlepool and Heysham in England, Hunterston and Torness in Scotland, and Wylfa in Wales.
Engineered flood defences may be required to protect some of the sites from rising sea levels and storms caused by climate change, Jackson warned, though that would only add 2% to capital costs. "This is a report for government, not by government," he said. "As with all things nuclear, politics is always - quite rightly - the most important deciding factor."
The revelations about likely sites have already been seized upon by the anti-nuclear lobby. "This will bring home the reality to people of having untried, untested reactors built on their doorsteps," said Jean McSorley from Greenpeace. "All of the sites named as likely candidates are known to be at significant risk of flooding over the coming decades."
Richard Clegg, a nuclear researcher at Manchester University, UK, however, welcomed the government's new policy. "It's important to see that nuclear is back in the centre of the energy agenda, as the technology is our best option for low-carbon base-load electricity generation," he said. "We’re also seeing nuclear generation appearing back on the map worldwide."
Download a copy of the Jackson report on sites for new nuclear power stations here.