Prime minister Tony Blair has announced a sweeping review of energy policy by the Cabinet office’s Performance and Innovation Unit. The intention is to find ways to meet the country’s Kyoto obligations, help in establishing a leading role for the UK in climate change measures and deal with a potential energy shortfall. Under existing policies the UK’s energy position would shift radically during the next few years as first the oil and gas starts to run dry and the country becomes a net importer (probably by 2007), and then its 15 nuclear power stations, currently supplying 25 per cent of the UK’s electricity, reach the end of their working lives. Under the present schedule the remaining units will go off line at intervals, starting in 2002 when Bradwell closes down.

But new priorities are making themselves felt and the opinion forming process of rehabilitating nuclear power in the public mind and the political arena has already started. An immediate effect is the return of nuclear power to the agenda, as a route that several governments already see as perhaps the only viable way to simultaneously avoid fossil fuel dependency and reduce CO2 emissions on the scale necessary to meeting Kyoto obligations. Energy minister Brian Wilson, who chairs the policy review, and will report back at the end of the year, is not being told to recommend new build. But he is to consider “what role nuclear energy should play in meeting the environmental and security of supply objectives”. That is being generally interpreted as an examination of the feasibility of extending the life of nuclear plants. This is not likely to be a technical problem – some plants, the BNFL Magnox reactors, have already lived on for twenty years beyond their design life of 25 years – but a financial one. Robin Jeffrey, chairman of British Energy, has been quoted as saying that high costs and planning constraints meant that the industry was a long way from making a business case for new stations.

There have been critics of the appointment of Brian Wilson. The Hunterston nuclear plant lies in his constituency and he is a supporter of nuclear energy. Friends of the Earth said that putting him in charge was “like putting the fox in charge of the hen coop”. But the prospects of any new nuclear build are slim, certainly in the short term.