Speculation is mounting that the UK is to embark on an £8 billion (€11.6 billion) round of new nuclear power station developments soon after the next general election, expected in May.

According to reports published in the Independent on Sunday, nuclear companies are ready to prepare bids following the supposed publication of a revised energy White Paper. The paper is expected, controversially, to propose new reactors to replace those currently reaching the end of their lives.

Companies named in the report include Areva, Amec and Westinghouse which are said to be looking for potential partners ahead of any government move. The reports indicate that any winning consortium would build up to 10 reactors, costing around £800 million (€1.16 billion) each.

However, despite apparently rising levels of corporate activity that add credence to the rumours, trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt says that, at present, the economics don’t stack up for new nuclear build and there are the problems of waste disposal to be addressed. Consequently, the government has not changed its formal position from the 2003 White Paper in which it favours renewable energy over nuclear, but keeps its options open.

Nonetheless, with environment and energy ministers from 20 nations gathered in London for a two-day Energy and Environment Ministerial Roundtable, the role of nuclear in the climate change debate is once again at the top of the agenda. Certainly, China and India plan to see nuclear energy play a significant role in curbing the predicted surge in emissions resulting from their booming economic growth.

All options, including nuclear, renewables and carbon capture, had to be considered, the conference heard, although some commentators say nuclear is the only option that can both offer carbon dioxide cuts and provide security of supply. However, International Energy Agency head Claude Mandil reportedly said that from 2002 – 2030, switching from fossil fuel to nuclear would probably only offer around a 10% reduction in carbon emissions.

Ultimately, three separate reviews will be required before new nuclear developments could begin in the UK. According to comments from Hewitt at the roundtable event, first the government’s review of its climate change programme, which it hopes to report on this summer, would be carried out. A planned look at whether renewable energy and energy efficiency measures are delivering the anticipated results would then be completed before another White Paper would have to be produced if new nuclear construction appeared necessary, Hewitt said.