UK to end years of wavering over nuclear power

The governemt is expected to give the go-ahead to a new generation of nuclear power stations on Thursday, ending years of uncertainty over its energy plans.

In its prolonged deliberations, Labour initially described nuclear energy as "an unattractive option".

But since it made that statement in 2003, surging oil prices, which last week hit a record above $100, have made nuclear energy more competitive and the focus on the need to cut carbon emissions has sharpened.

The move would add to the gathering momentum behind atomic energy as part of the solution to the world's energy problems.

Already, countries such as France and Finland are building new nuclear plants and, in the United States, companies have begun filing licence applications.

Nuclear operators say they could have new UK plants running by 2017, helping Britain to meet its 2020 goals for combating climate change.

The government green light is likely to be accompanied by publication of an Energy Bill to be fast-tracked through parliament alongside the Climate Change Bill and the Planning Bill.

The trio of bills form the backbone of the government's new energy and climate policy for the next decades.

The UK public is divided on the issue, with 44 percent saying companies should have the option of investing in new nuclear and 37 percent disagreeing.

Business Secretary John Hutton, who will announce the government's decision to parliament, has stressed the importance of a wide range of energy sources in recent speeches, which many interpret as a vote for new nuclear.

And Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged last week to "take the difficult decisions on energy security".

Around 18 percent of Britain's electricity is generated by nuclear power, but the last of Britain's existing nuclear plants is scheduled to be closed by 2035. Analysts say renewable sources of energy would not be sufficient to replace them.

For opponents, the thousands of years of toxic waste are one of the powerful reasons to say nuclear is not worth the risk.

Environmental group Greenpeace last February won a legal battle to force the government into a full public consultation on new nuclear power. It then withdrew from those consultations in September saying they were biased and has said it might challenge again.

"That is something we are looking at. Our lawyers will be examining the government's statement closely and we reserve the right to mount a new legal challenge," a spokesman said.