The Brown government has committed itself publicly to the continued use of nuclear power in Britain, shrugging off the orthodox green lobby's calls to eliminate the technology completely.
In a long-awaited speech to Parliament this morning, business secretary John Hutton gave the go-ahead, saying the government hoped for the first new nuclear station to come on line "well before 2020", that the arguments in favour of nuclear were "compelling", and that there would be no cap on the number or capacity of nuclear plants that could be built. The government's view was that nuclear was the cheapest source of low-carbon electricity.
Hutton also said very firmly that the decommissioning and waste costs arising from new nuclear build are to be borne by the operators, not the taxpayer. However, the government has agreed to run the national waste programme and to bear the costs of legacy waste created in the past. The formation of an independent scrutiny body was planned to ensure "transparency" in the financial arrangements.
There was broad political support for Hutton's plans, with the Tories saying they are OK with nuclear provided it needs no subsidy.
Shadow minister Alan Duncan said: "Our position is by and large similar to the government... the investment climate will remain stable under a future Conservative government."
Duncan said, however, that the government still had questions to answer - for instance "what will happen if a nuclear power company goes bankrupt?"
EDF Energy, which is a major non-nuclear electricity player in the UK and owns more than 50 nuke stations in France (where 80 per cent of electricity is nuclear generated), says it reckons the business case for new UK nuclear is sound, especially with the prospect of coal and gas being forced in future to pay carbon emissions levies.
"We have the financial strength to sustain the large investments required and the long periods of time over which returns are achieved," EDF boss Vincent de Rivaz said.
"This financial strength is based on real, long-lived assets, rather than on short term credit. We also have the financial strength to meet the long term liabilities of decommissioning and waste management."
The Lib Dems remained violently opposed to a new nuke roll-out.
"This is a flawed decision based on a sham consultation," said Steve Webb, the party's environment spokesman, echoing Greenpeace's view of the twice-repeated government discussion/polling exercises last year.
"We should be concentrating our efforts on renewables and... carbon capture and storage as a safe, secure and flexible way of plugging the energy gap."
Hutton did promise that the government would fund a large-scale trial of carbon capture, saying this would mean the UK was one of only three countries worldwide taking the idea seriously.
Greenpeace, leading the opponents of nuclear power, predictably said the decision was wrong.
"We can easily keep the lights on by investing in energy efficiency, renewable energy and decentralised energy as well as using fossil fuels more efficiently than we do now," the group said in its response to the government's plan.
The Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK's technology centre of excellence, believes that nuclear is a good idea. It said last year that:
Nuclear energy has an important role to play in electricity generation in the UK... what is needed for private investment in a new nuclear build programme is confidence that political support will continue throughout the lifetime of the nuclear plants... this requires backing from all the major political parties in the UK.
Depending on the definition of a "major" political party, this either has or hasn't been achieved.
The government publishes a white paper today, and will take its plans forward in an upcoming energy bill. ®