Nuclear power is a renewable energy source, a government minister has declared, indicating a growing acceptance that future energy sources will have to be nuclear.
In a debate on energy security in the House of Lords, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science and Innovation Minister, was asked whether he would reclassify nuclear as renewable energy. He said: "Lady O'Cathain offered me the opportunity of . . . agreeing that nuclear is a renewable source of energy - it clearly is so."
Lord Sainsbury's declaration last Thursday provides more evidence that the anti-nuclear stance of the Government is shifting in response to mounting concern about an emerging energy deficit.
A decision to reclassify nuclear as a renewable source of energy would have dramatic consequences. Nuclear generators would be exempted, like wind turbines, from the Climate Change Levy, a tax borne by the nuclear industry despite its carbon-free advantage. It would also force a rethink of the renewables obligation, which requires utilities to buy 10 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010.
Over the next ten to fifteen years a swath of ageing nuclear and coal-fired power stations, accounting for half of Britain's electricity output, will need to be decomissioned. Promoters of nuclear power argue that only a new generation of nuclear reactors can both fill the gap and meet Britain's target of reducing carbon emissions.
Opponents of nuclear power in the Cabinet have blocked proposals to provide fiscal or planning support for the construction of a new fleet of nuclear generators. In his speech, Lord Sainsbury acknowledged that nuclear power raised other problems such as safety and environmental impact, but he said that the Government's energy review must consider the problem of running down nuclear stations while working to reduce carbon emissions.
"By 2020, we take out 20 per cent of our clean energy sources," he said. "If you are very optimistic, you might get renewables to 20 per cent, but that would mean we have gone 20 years without making any impact on our emissions.
"You have to ask if that is an acceptable situation or whether you should bring in nuclear."
Bringing nuclear power into the renewables obligation would restore investor confidence without diverting funds from other renewables, according to Keith Parker, of the Nuclear Industry Association.
He said: "It would demonstrate a degree of government commitment to nuclear, which private investors would need to invest in new generators."