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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 February 2007, 14:34 GMT
Where now for nuclear plans?
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Tony Blair's claim to be opening up controversial policy areas to full public debate have often faced scepticism - none more so than on the issue of nuclear power.

Sizewell B nuclear power station
Mr Blair's critics say nuclear power is very unpopular

On this most emotive of policies, even as the prime minister was announcing his energy review in November 2005, critics of nuclear power were accusing him of having already made up his mind.

They claimed the consultation on future energy options was attempting to give an apparent sheen of public approval to what they believed to be an unpopular policy.

Now, in a highly unusual move, a High Court judge has ruled that the consultation was "flawed" and "not merely inadequate but also misleading" in respect of nuclear waste.

Because there had not been the "fullest possible public consultation" as the government had earlier promised, he agreed to a Greenpeace call for the quashing of the review's conclusion that new nuclear power plants were needed.

Tory criticism

Shadow trade secretary Alan Duncan said the court had shown the government to have been "fundamentally deceitful" and "offended the honesty of how governments should behave".

The ruling is undoubtedly a major embarrassment to the prime minister and may well throw a spanner into the works, perhaps delaying the publication of the energy white paper set for some time next month.

But, if the first reaction from the Department of Trade and Industry is any indication, it is not going to blow the policy far off course.

Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said the government had accepted the judge's ruling and would consult again along the lines suggested.

But he has also made clear that, while views will be taken into account, a decision is needed by the end of the year and the government believes there should be new nuclear power plants.

The reasons he gave the BBC were that it is a low carbon energy source, so can help combat climate change, and also that would help to avoid the UK becoming too reliant on imported oil and gas.

It certainly seems that the claim from Greenpeace's Emma Gibson that the policy had been "derailed" and that ministers would have to go back to the drawing board is going to be fiercely contested.

Blair decision

But, with a number of senior Cabinet ministers retaining deep reservations about the need for nuclear power, it is still possible this policy will face a rough ride.

Few doubted that the prime minister had long ago decided nuclear power was bound to be part of the answer to Britain's energy requirements.

He had argued for some time before he launched the energy review in January 2006 that nothing else could fill the looming energy gap or, perhaps more importantly, offer security of supply which, at the moment, is too dependent on imported energy.

Those assertions met stiff resistance from groups like Greenpeace who claimed not enough attention was being given to alternative sources of energy.

They claimed the prime minister was attempting to railroad the country into a new nuclear future.

This ruling has certainly applied the brakes on that process, perhaps landing it in Gordon Brown's lap.

Whether it does lead to delays or not, Mr Justice Sullivan has certainly handed fresh ammunition to those critics who say the government is too ready to deploy spin to win its case.

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk




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