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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 January 2008, 12:40 GMT
The politics of nuclear power plan
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

After the best part of three years' political argument, court cases and public consultations the government has finally moved to re-start Britain's nuclear energy programme.

Greenpeace protesters
Government will struggle to convince protesters
But, far from being the end of the road on this most controversial of issues, and despite vital Tory support, this is only the start of the process which has many years yet to run.

Ministers seem to have been advancing the pro-nuclear cause with some success since Tony Blair first put it back on the agenda around three years ago.

Claims it is the least environmentally damaging of all the possible energy sources and that it is the only way to even hope of filling the looming energy gap have won over many MPs formerly opposed to any expansion of nuclear power.

Another argument, less forcefully put in public but which has been deployed in the background, is over security of supply.

Waste disposal

With Russia holding the world's greatest reserves of oil, and with President Putin adopting a less-than-friendly attitude towards the west, energy policy has taken on a newly-important political significance.

All this may have helped the pro-nuclear case, but it is far from won and there remains great political opposition.

Wind farm
Opponents want more investment in alternatives

The Liberal Democrats, along with the Greens and a number of Labour backbenchers, believe more should be done to develop renewable energy sources and promote energy efficiency.

They are also deeply concerned over the still-unsettled issue of the disposal of waste.

The Lib Dems, in particular, may well believe this is an issue that chimes with public opinion and will hope that - with Iraq no longer available as "their" issue - they will be seen as the only major party fighting on this battleground.

But, crucially for the government, the Conservatives have modified their opposition from the previous "only as a last resort" approach to one which emphasises the cost and demands there should be no public subsidy.

Political problem

That, of course, is exactly what the government is claiming will now be possible - and that private industry is ready and willing to finance a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Business Secretary John Hutton offered some further encouragement to industry by insisting there would be no cap on the amount of energy nuclear could supply.

And Tory spokesman Alan Duncan's promise to keep on supporting private investment in new stations under any future Conservative government will also have hugely reassured industry over the future.

So it now seems the political arguments have ended with a degree of consensus between Labour and the Tories, even if others, led in the Commons by the Liberal Democrats, remain fiercely opposed to the proposals.

There remain other political problems, however.

The ruling SNP along with the Greens and Liberal Democrats in Scotland have opposed the proposals and, while the parliament does not have the power to decide on the issue itself, it could use planning powers to stop the building of any new nuclear power stations north of the border.

And, there is the prospect of another court challenge to the proposals and - outside the purely political arena - there is the battle to get industry to actually sign up to the scheme.

So, while it appears there is not to be a serious Commons challenge to these proposals, there may yet be external rows which will present the government with severe headaches in the years to come.

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