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French nuclear energy colossus EDF, which also operates various types of non-nuclear generation in the UK, has been buying up farmland close to existing British nuke plants.

The purchases are seen as a move to strengthen EDF's position in negotiations to buy British Energy, the sites' owner.

Today is the final deadline for bids to acquire the UK government's 35 per cent stake in British Energy. Whoever gets the government's shares will then automatically find themselves bidding to own all Blighty's existing private sector nuclear sites. This will be key to the expected building of a new generation of atomic powerplants in Britain, as the plants are expected to be built alongside existing kit.

EDF, which is a major nuclear player in France - where the majority of electricity is generated in nuclear stations - would like to acquire British Energy. However, the French firm doesn't want to find itself having to pay an excessive price: hence the recent land purchases, which could offer an alternative for siting new EDF reactors - although this would hugely complicate planning and licensing.

The Financial Times reported last night on the land deals. The paper's sources suggested that EDF had no desire to actually proceed with the use of its new property - the moves were seen more as a manoeuvre to keep the price of British Energy shares down. This seemed likely to be successful, with an unnamed insider speculating that EDF would not need to offer the full current share price in order to secure the government stake.

EDF and other power companies are keen to get into the new UK nuclear sector, which they believe offers a good chance of safe, long-term profits now that carbon levies seem to be inevitable and North Sea fossil supplies are firmly in decline. ®

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