(Corrects first paragraph)
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain gave the go-ahead to a new generation of nuclear power stations on Thursday, setting no limits on nuclear expansion and adding momentum to atomic energy’s worldwide renaissance.
The government argues that Britain must build nuclear plants to help meet its climate change goals and to avoid overdependence on imported energy amid dwindling North Sea oil supplies.
“New nuclear power stations should have a role to play in this country’s future energy mix alongside other low-carbon sources,” Energy Secretary John Hutton told parliament.
“I do not intend to set some sort of artificial cap on the proportion of electricity the UK should be able to generate either from nuclear power or from any other source of low carbon energy,” he added.
The government called nuclear energy an unattractive option in 2003, but since then surging prices for oil and gas have helped to make it more competitive and the focus on cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change has intensified.
Already, countries such as France and Finland are building new nuclear plants and, in the United States, companies have begun filing licence applications, reinforcing the view atomic energy is part of the solution to the world’s energy problems.
Nuclear operators say they could have new plants running by 2017, which would help the government meet its 2020 goals for cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change.
“It is good news that decisions are finally being made. The UK needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while still ensuring that we have secure sources of electricity each day,” said Peter Williams, vice president of the Royal Society, Britain’s independent scientific academy.
The government green light was accompanied by publication of an Energy Bill to be fast-tracked through parliament with the Climate Change Bill and the Planning Bill.
The trio of bills form the backbone of the government’s new energy and climate policy for the next decades.
The public is divided on the issue, with 44 percent saying companies should have the option of investing in new nuclear power and 37 percent disagreeing.
Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, said the government had to make a compelling case for nuclear power to build public support, given the sensitivities over where plants should be built and how waste should be disposed of.
Around 18 percent of the country’s electricity is generated by nuclear power, but the last of its existing nuclear plants is scheduled to be closed by 2035. Analysts say renewable sources of energy would not be sufficient to replace them.
For opponents, the toxic waste from nuclear power generation which will remain for thousands of years is one of the powerful reasons to say atomic energy is not worth the risk.
Environmental group Greenpeace last February won a legal battle to force the government into a full public consultation. It then withdrew from those consultations in September saying they were biased and has said it might challenge again.
“That is something we are looking at. Our lawyers will be examining the government’s statement closely and we reserve the right to mount a new legal challenge,” a spokesman said.
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