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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 March 2008, 18:10 GMT
UK push for big nuclear expansion
Pylons at Dungeness nuclear power plant, Kent
A fifth of Britain's power comes from nuclear sources
Business secretary John Hutton has called for a "significant expansion" in Britain's nuclear power industry.

In a speech to the Unite trade union, he argued the industry should go beyond replacing its 23 ageing reactors, which provide 20% of the UK's electricity.

He called for the creation of a 20bn industry with 100,000 new jobs - making the UK "the gateway to a new nuclear renaissance across Europe".

It comes as the President of France - a world nuclear leader - visits the UK.

Mr Sarkozy is due to discuss nuclear cooperation when he meets Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Nuclear energy provides about 79% of France's energy.

French energy giant EDF is among the private firms poised to build a new generation of reactors in the UK after the government came out in favour of nuclear energy in January.

Ministers have streamlined the planning process and approved a new generation of reactor designs in a bid to boost private investment.

'Energy independent'

Mr Hutton has refused to put a figure on the amount of energy he wants to see generated by nuclear plants in the future - but he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it should be "significantly more" than the current level.

I want Britain to be leading the world in the development and application of this new generation of low carbon power technology
John Hutton
Business secretary

"I think if we are really serious about our climate change responsibilities, if we want Britain to be as energy-independent as possible - then I think we should be talking about a significant expansion over and above the current contribution that nuclear power makes.

"It's now about 20%. I think it should be significantly more than that, if we are really going to reap the dividend of switching quickly to a proven low-carbon technology like nuclear power."

Reactors have been proved safe and delaying using them more widely could be disastrous for the environment, according to Mr Hutton.

He added: "I think the technology is proven, not just in terms of producing electricity but in terms of safety as well.

"In terms of waste disposal, I don't think there is an argument about how it should be done - there is an argument about where it should be done."

The government has put its faith in nuclear power to prevent over-reliance on foreign energy supplies, such as gas from Russia, as North Sea oil runs out.

'Fantastic opportunity'

It also claims nuclear power will help the UK meet its carbon emission targets - although environmental groups say its likely impact has been overstated.

The UK government are becoming increasingly obsessed with the illusion that nuclear power is the "silver bullet" to tackle climate change
Mike Weir
SNP energy spokesman

They have called for the money to be spent on renewables such as wind and wave power instead.

In his speech, Mr Hutton said: "There has never been a greater global demand for finance, equipment and skills to build and operate nuclear power stations.

"I want Britain to be leading the world in the development and application of this new generation of low carbon power technology."

The nuclear industry currently employs around 40,000 workers and supports another 40,000 jobs indirectly.

No new nuclear power plants have been built in the UK since Sizewell B, which opened in 1994.

'Completely crazy'

Dougie Rooney, from Unite, supported Mr Hutton's idea.

"It's a fantastic opportunity. First of all we're talking here about jobs and security of supply in the long term, and the quality of life of people.

"We're talking about a fantastic opportunity for the manufacturing industry, we could kick-start our foundry industry, we could kick-start our fabrication industry."

But the SNP - which has said it would block any plans for new reactors in Scotland - said Mr Hutton had succumbed to a "severe bout of March madness".

The party's Westminster energy spokesman, Mike Weir, said: "The UK government are becoming increasingly obsessed with the illusion that nuclear power is the "silver bullet" to tackle climate change.

"This is completely crazy given that there is no solution to the huge problems associated with nuclear power, particularly the disposal of nuclear waste."



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