The government is expected this week to open the way to new nuclear power stations when it spells out how it will keep the lights burning at the same time as trying to meet its international obligations to tackle global warming.
But while backing big power in the shape of nuclear and so-called clean coal, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is also expected to promote renewables such as wind and waves, local generation and greater energy efficiency.
Environmentalists expect the Energy Review to be published on Tuesday, but the Department of Trade and Industry which is conducting the study has declined to confirm the date.
“We understand that the review will have a major chunk on nuclear power and pay lip service to micro-generation, combined heat and power, carbon capture and storage, renewables and energy efficiency to soften the blow,” a WWF spokeswoman said.
Earlier this year, parliament’s science and technology committee urged the government to ensure Britain was at the forefront of carbon capture and storage technology, both to help meet Britain’s own carbon targets and to sell to countries such as China, which is building a coal-fired power station a week.
Blair backs nuclear power because it is carbon free and does not rely on volatile supplies of imported oil and gas.
“When you look at the evidence its very hard to see how you are going to get to where collectively as a country we’ve decided we want to be, namely with more secure energy supplies and tackling greenhouse gas emissions, without replacing nuclear power,” he told a parliamentary committee last week.
He has said the review’s proposals on renewables and energy efficiency would be as radical as on nuclear. But he also says that, while renewables have a role to play, they cannot make up for the lost capacity that would come from abandoning nuclear.
All but one of the ageing nuclear power plants — which supply a fifth of the nation’s electricity — are due to close within a decade.
The government has repeatedly said it will not put any public money into new nuclear power — a key pledge given the estimated 70 billion pounds required to decommission the existing plants and clean up the highly toxic waste.
Power companies have said they will find private finance but would like long term guaranteed price contracts in return — a demand environmentalists say is a subsidy by another name.
Environmentalists complain that by focussing solely on electricity the energy review has ignored energy use in industry and transport. Electricity generation accounts for just 18 percent of energy consumption.
The issue of energy security will dominate the agenda at this week’s summit of the Group of Eight industrialised nations in the Russian city of St Petersburg.