The British government has been quietly exchanging intelligence on key policies with multinational companies in an effort to protect and promote their plans for new nuclear power stations, according to internal documents seen by the Guardian.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) has also passed the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), which represents 260 companies, and the French nuclear company, EDF Energy, details of its court battle against Greenpeace, which is trying to block the nuclear plans.
The leakage of information has been condemned by Greenpeace as an "abuse of power" which prevents democratic scrutiny. The environmental group's lawyers have written to the government and high court in London complaining that the proper legal procedures have been breached.
The government is planning to build eight new nuclear power stations in England and Wales and there is a perception that the government has been working closely with the nuclear industry to manage public opinion and prevent a backlash against the technology as has happened in Germany and Italy.
Internal emails revealed by the Guardian in June showed that British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March.
In the latest revelations, a minute of a meeting on 15 September between officials from Decc's Office for Nuclear Development (OND) and EDF reveals that they shared information about the handling of the company's application to build the first of the new nuclear stations at Hinkley Point in Somerset, and much else.
Most of the minute was meant to be kept secret, but the redacted text was so poorly blacked out when it was released under Freedom of Information (FOI) that it can easily be read. It says that EDF was briefed about the government's regulatory justification of the nuclear programme, the new fast-track planning regime, electricity market reform, nuclear decommissioning, nuclear policy statements and developments in the European Union.
Decc has released documents under FOI about its co-operation with the nuclear industry on Greenpeace's bid for a judicial review of the nuclear power programme. These show that on 7 September, the OND provided the NIA with a list of 31 documents lodged in court by Greenpeace.
The minute of the 15 September meeting also says the OND was to send EDF a copy of the government's "defence grounds" when they had been submitted to the court. The sharing of information with EDF has particularly irked Greenpeace, since the company was fined €1.5m last month for spying on the environmental group in France.
As a general rule, only the main statement of a case such as this is publicly available, but not a list of accompanying documents, or the documents themselves. People may apply to the court to see the documents, but they will only be released with the court's permission. In practice, this is bureaucratic and involves a delay.
"This shocking new evidence shows the government has been secretly passing on privileged Greenpeace court documents to nuclear giant EDF even as the company faced prosecution in France for spying on Greenpeace," said the NGO's executive director, John Sauven.
"Our lawyers have written to the government and the high court to complain of this abuse of process by the government. If the government wants EDF and the nuclear industry to be part of the judicial review case then they should follow the proper procedures."
The released documents also show that the OND and the NIA swapped proposed press statements reacting to the Greenpeace legal action in August. "This extraordinary level of collusion between such huge vested interests is a real abuse of power and chokes off debate and democratic scrutiny," said Sauven. "People will have no confidence that the right decisions are being made over safety and value for money when the government has become effectively an extension of the nuclear industry."
The badly blacked-out text from the 15 September minute shows that government information was shared with EDF on most current policies affecting nuclear power. EDF was also said to have updated the OND on the "preliminary works" at Hinkley Point and the preparation of the company's application to build a nuclear station there.
According to the minute, EDF was to send the OND "a short summary of the administrative costs" of preparing the application, while the OND promised to "consider the timetable" for assessing the application and report back. EDF were also going to "consider a possible ministerial visit" to Hinkley.
Steve Thomas, a professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich in London, argued that such close co-operation was inappropriate. "These extracts show that, in its desperation to save its failing nuclear power policy, the UK government has totally compromised its position as a neutral arbiter in planning applications," he said.
Decc argued that it would not be able to encourage the development of different forms of energy to ensure security of supply without "good working relationships" with energy companies. "As well as liaising closely with both large and smaller players in the energy market, we engage regularly with academic organisations, and environmental groups," said a Decc spokesman.
"In all instances steps are taken to avoid any conflicts of interest or anything that would compromise the fairness of decision-making."
NIA denied that there had been any abuse of power or breach of legal procedures. "There was no attempt by either Decc or NIA to influence the other's media line, and the list of documents relied upon by Greenpeace could have been obtained directly from the court," said NIA's public policy adviser, Peter Haslam.
"The reason we were interested in seeing the index was that we wanted to consider whether we should be an interested party in the action."
A spokeswoman for EDF Energy said: "The topics we have discussed with government are entirely appropriate for an investment of national significance, which could provide up to 12% of the UK's electricity needs. We have been open about this ongoing dialogue which fits what government expects of us as a developer."
A copy of the badly blacked-out documents released by the Department of Energy and Climate can be downloaded here (770KB pdf).