Court delivers blow to Blair's nuclear plans

LONDON (Reuters) - A judge struck a blow at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plans for a new generation of nuclear power stations on Thursday, forcing the government into another public consultation that could delay new nuclear plants.

A fisherman walks past the Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent in a file photo. A top judge accused the government of failing to carry out proper consultation over proposed new nuclear power plants and handed environmental group Greenpeace a legal victory on Thursday. REUTERS/Toby Melville

High Court judge Jeremy Sullivan handed a stinging rebuke to Blair’s government, saying the public consultation it carried out before deciding Britain needed new nuclear power stations was “inadequate” and “wrong”.

The ruling was a setback for Blair, who has made it a priority of his final months in office to win backing for a new generation of nuclear power stations -- a policy opposed by some members of the Labour Party.

But the prime minister said he would push on regardless because failure to act would “betray the long-term future of the country”.

“If we don’t replace our existing nuclear power stations which are coming to an end, we will find it virtually impossible to meet our climate change targets (and) we’ll end up importing even larger amounts of foreign gas,” Blair told Sky News.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said the government would give interested parties a new chance to comment -- a process that usually takes three months.

“Clearly the best thing to do now is to accept the judge’s verdict, to learn from what went wrong, to put it right and consult properly to make sure we can get the process back on track,” Darling told the BBC.

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The government said last July Britain needed new nuclear power plants, more electricity from wind and waves and cuts in energy consumption to fight global warming and reduce rising dependence on imported oil and gas.

Darling said Britain must take decisions on its energy future by the end of this year. “Otherwise we will have power stations coming off line, going out of commission, and we won’t have anything to replace them with,” he said.


Energy experts said the court ruling would delay the construction of new nuclear power stations in Britain, many of whose existing plants are nearing the end of their lives.

“Nuclear new build was always on a long lead time but this decision will set it back considerably,” said Ian Arbon, who heads an energy and environmental group at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, the British arm of French power giant EDF, told Reuters on Thursday, however, that the company hoped to open its first new nuclear power plant in Britain within a decade.

Ruling on a legal challenge by environmental group Greenpeace, Sullivan said the consultation had been “clearly and radically wrong”.

“It was not merely inadequate, but it was also misleading,” the judge said.

Greenpeace, which opposes new nuclear plants, said the government’s review had failed to resolve key issues, such as dealing with radioactive waste, costs and reactor design.

The government pledged to press on with publishing an energy white paper or policy document, which will add flesh to its nuclear plans. The document had been expected in mid-March but a government spokesman could not say if it would now be delayed.

The Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesman Chris Huhne voiced delight at the ruling while the Conservatives said it showed the government had been deceitful.

The Conservatives say new nuclear plants should be a last resort while the Liberal Democrats oppose them.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Lovell and Sophie Walker