His comments are being taken as a clear signal that the Government is already planning to revive the nuclear option, in a week dominated by the nuclear debate.

In an interview with The Independent, Sir David said that, in the short-term, there may be no alternative to the nuclear option as the current range of atomic power stations are being decommissioned. Currently, atomic power provides roughly a quarter of our electricity, yet by 2020 this will drop to about four per cent as only Sizewell B will be left as an active reactor.

This would leave a large gap in energy supply, which he said would be filled with new nuclear build, a hugely expanded renewables sector, and increased energy efficiency.

“Examining the situation now, because there’s this imminent projected gap in nuclear energy on the grid, the whole question is whether this gap can be filled quickly enough with renewables. But if it can’t, then I would imagine that one further generation of nuclear power stations would be all that would be required,” he told the paper. “That gap in energy is imminent and that’s why nuclear is a live issue.”

He added that he had never been a fan of nuclear power, but that the threat of climate change was so important that the nuclear option had to be re-examined. Nuclear power produces no CO2 emissions, so is considered by some to be a ‘clean’ form of energy production and a potential solution to the problems of global warming.

Sir David’s comments come at the end of a week rife with speculation over the prospect of a new generation of nuclear power stations and fears over environmental safety. Leaked briefing papers from senior civil servants, and seized on by the press, reportedly made a strong case for a quick decision on whether or not to support the building of a series of atomic plants.

This was followed by a cabinet reshuffle in which anti-nuclear DTI Minister Patricia Hewitt was moved to Health, and the department re-named as The Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, with Alan Johnson being named as Secretary of State. The department has subsequently changed its name back to the DTI.

Many saw this reshuffle as a sign that the government was simply paving the way for new nuclear build by removing Hewitt, although Margaret Beckett, well known as being anti-nuclear, remains as Environment Secretary.

These concerns were then thrown into sharp relief when a leak of highly radioactive liquid, containing about 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, poured through a fractured pipe and forced the closure of Thorp reprocessing plant at Sellafield.

Managing Director of British Nuclear Group Barry Snelson stressed that there was no danger to the public as the contamination was contained in a stainless steel chamber. However, the exact time and cause of the accident was still unknown and being investigated.

It may take months to repair the damage and fix the pipes and is likely to lead to calls to shut the plant permanently.

Rumours of a new nuclear build have abounded in recent months, particularly as the UK has admitted it is unlikely to meet its emissions reduction targets and that, in fact, emissions have risen in recent years (see related story).

However, Friends of the Earth warned that it was foolish to believe that nuclear could help solve the global warming crisis. Director of the group, Tony Juniper warned:

“Nuclear power is unsafe, uneconomic, unpopular and largely irrelevant as a practical answer to tackling climate change. Even doubling nuclear capacity would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at most eight per cent, while adding to a toxic legacy of nuclear waste which the taxpayer will most likely have to pay for and which will remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.”

He said that the reason for missing reduction targets wasn’t reduced nuclear output but increased emissions from coal-fired power stations.

“Urgent action is needed on climate change,” he said. “But instead of flogging the dead horse of nuclear power, the Government should change the failing policies that are causing carbon dioxide levels to soar. This must include tackling emissions from coal-fired power stations, putting more resources into energy efficiency, researching the viability of carbon capture and storage, promoting the full range of renewable sources of energy and taking control of emissions from the transport sector.”

By David Hopkins

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