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UK nuke-power plans leak early

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown insists that the UK government has not made up its mind yet on a new generation of nuclear power stations, but that the decision will be announced on Thursday. However, it is now virtually certain that Brown intends to permit atomic energy to continue in Britain.

The Prime Minister's press spokesman, briefing reporters at No. 10 Downing Street, refused to speculate ahead of the planned speech by Business Secretary John Hutton to Parliament on Thursday. Still, the Q&A session all but confirmed that a plan for nuclear power is in place, with the spokesman offering partial answers to detailed questions regarding future UK nuclear strategy.

Asked specifically about who would pay the costs of decommissioning any new power stations, and who would pay for management of nuclear waste, the PM's spokesman said that the government believed that power companies should pay the "full cost" of decommissioning, but that they would only have to pay their "full share... in relation to the long-term management and disposal of waste".

This appeared to confirm a key allegation of anti-nuclear campaigners; that the nuclear industry would benefit from taxpayer subsidies. But the handling of nuclear waste is a complex issue. Much spent reactor fuel, at present classified as waste, could be turned into useful fuel once more by the use of so-called "fast breeder" reactors, which have not yet been built. Fast-breeder technology is controversial, though, and the plutonium it produces is useable in nuclear weapons - unlike ordinary civil uranium fuel.

The nuclear industry, in its closed-doors negotiations with the government, may well have argued that "waste" is actually potential fuel, and that its own preferred strategy would be to use it as such. It appears that the government, no doubt reluctant to stir up fresh argument by agreeing to allow fast-breeder reactors, may have agreed to bear some long-term storage costs.

This decision may also have been affected by the fact that the UK's "nuclear waste" is potentially of importance to national security, both in the context of supplying the country's own nuclear-weapons fabrication* and with regard to preventing potentially useful material falling into unsuitable hands. Realistically, the government wants to be involved with nuclear waste management to some degree.

This seemed to be confirmed last night with the Financial Times, having spoken to unnamed officials at Mr Hutton's department, saying that waste storage will be run by the government with operators paying to lease space. The civil servants appeared to say that the phrase "full share" meant that the government would cover the costs of minding legacy waste, but new waste generated under Brown's plans would be entirely paid for by the power companies.

Overall, it seems certain that the Brown government does not intend UK nuclear energy use to cease once the current stations wear out. More details will become apparent on Thursday. ®

*The UK makes its own nuclear warheads but cannot make intercontinental missiles to carry them; these are supplied by the USA.

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