Energy minister says nuclear compromise "unpleasant"

LONDON (Reuters) - The Liberal Democrats agreed to drop their opposition to a new generation of nuclear power stations in one of many “unpleasant” compromises needed to secure a power-sharing deal with the Conservatives, the new energy minister said on Thursday.

A general view of the British Energy Hunterston 'B' nuclear power station near Largs in west Scotland September 24, 2008. REUTERS/David Moir

Chris Huhne, a Liberal Democrat who has described nuclear power as a “failed technology,” said it was worth sacrificing one of his party’s key election pledges to bolster Britain’s first coalition since 1945.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed to share power on Wednesday after the ruling Labour Party failed to win a fourth term in office at an inconclusive election last week.

Under their agreement, the Liberal Democrats agreed not to vote against Conservative proposals to build new nuclear power stations to replace the current ageing plants.

“This is a coalition agreement that has always involved compromise on both sides,” Huhne told BBC radio. “There are a whole series of compromises which have been struck in this agreement which I think are obviously unpleasant for each of the parties.”

The pay-off for such compromises is a chance to “reshape British politics” and protect the economic recovery, he added.

The Labour Party, forced out of power after 13 years, supports the new nuclear power stations and its votes would probably guarantee a Conservative victory in any parliamentary vote. The Liberal Democrats, who say nuclear power is too expensive, would abstain.

Related Coverage

“If there is a majority in parliament in favour of a particular nuclear will go ahead,” Huhne added.

Nuclear reactors generated about a fifth of Britain’s electricity in the second quarter of 2009, but all except one of them is due to shut by 2025.

With time running out to build a new set of reactors, the Conservatives announced measures before the election to speed up the planning process to stop protesters from delaying their construction. The new planning system would give parliament direct powers to approve new nuclear power stations.

Britain was the first country to set legally-binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions to help combat climate change and all the main parties are committed to weaning the country off fossil fuels.

Huhne, a former financial journalist, said Britain should massively increase its reliance on renewable energy, such as tidal, wave, solar and wind power. It currently accounts for about 6 percent of the total.

“We literally have an abundance of potential renewable energy and yet we have one of the worst records of any country in the European Union for generating electricity from renewables,” he said, describing the renewable energy share as the former government’s “most scandalous legacy.”

Reporting by Peter Griffiths