|Sizewell B nuclear power station, Suffolk|
A government minister will call today for a huge expansion of Britain's nuclear power in what he predicts could be a £20bn economic bonanza that will create 100,000 new jobs and benefit the economy as much as North Sea oil.
In an ambitious speech that will alarm the anti-nuclear lobby, John Hutton, the business secretary, will argue that the UK's nuclear programme should go beyond replacing the existing stock of 23 reactors, which provide 20% of the country's energy. Instead nuclear should contribute "a significantly higher proportion" of the nation's energy needs in the years ahead, and Britain should aim to become a world leader in the development of nuclear power technology.
He will argue that replacing the existing reactors will be equivalent to investment "three times the size of the project to build Terminal 5 at Heathrow", but that the economic benefits could be far greater if Britain went further.
The speech, one of the most pro-nuclear delivered by a government minister, comes before an Anglo-French announcement to co-operate on the expansion of nuclear power. Hutton will say: "There has never been a greater global demand for finance, equipment and skills to build and operate nuclear power stations. I want Britain to be leading the world in the development and application of this new generation of low carbon power technology."
The government announced its approval of the construction of a new generation of nuclear power stations in January, along with a series of measures designed to attract the support of the private sector investors who will be expected to pay for the new reactors and their eventual decommissioning costs. The announcement was controversial, in part because of safety concerns about nuclear waste.
But in his speech to Unite, Britain's largest union, which has 26,000 members in the energy sector, Hutton will attempt to focus attention on the potential economic gains to be achieved from the replacement of Britain's nuclear reactors.
"Just replacing our existing capacity alone will equate to three times the size of the project to build Terminal 5 at Heathrow. It could represent around £20bn worth of business for UK companies," he will say.
"And with no artificial cap to constrain the potential of new build in the UK, there is every reason to believe that the industry could be contributing a significantly higher proportion of the UK in the decades ahead. Creating thousands of long-term highly skilled jobs directly within the energy industry and throughout the supply chain, the prize could be massive."
The prime minister, Gordon Brown, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, are due to agree a deal on the construction of a new generation of power stations and the export of nuclear technology around the world at tomorrow's so-called Arsenal summit at the Emirates football stadium in north London.
In his speech, Hutton will argue that with countries around the world increasingly keen to develop low-carbon energy sources, Britain has the potential to become "the gateway to a new nuclear renaissance across Europe". Such a renaissance "offers tremendous opportunities for highly skilled jobs across the breadth of the supply chain".
Hutton will describe the potential scale of each investment as "breathtaking".
The construction of Sizewell B, in Suffolk, took seven years before its completion in 1995. At its peak, the project employed more than 4,000 people and involved more than 3,000 British companies, he will tell Unite.
"If UK companies are competitive, and we have the right skilled workforce and ambition, the bulk of the capital expenditure related to this programme will flow into this country, creating new jobs, markets and businesses," Hutton will say.