The Government will face fierce opposition to a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, campaigners have warned, amid fears that Tony Blair has already agreed to a new generation of reactors. The Stop Hinkley group is convinced the public will fight any plans for a new reactor at the Somerset site, which is widely tipped to be at the top of the list for development if the Government takes the nuclear option to solve the country's energy equation.
Yesterday it was reported that Mr Blair has been urged by his chief scientific advisor to give the go-ahead to a new civil nuclear programme as the only way to meet demand while fulfilling the need to cut greenhouse gases.
Although he is yet to make a public statement to that effect, many believe the Prime Minster has already taken the decision and is mounting a spin offensive to try and defuse the inevitable backlash from environmental groups.
As well as the fear of accidental pollution and the unsolved question of what to do with radioactive waste, there is also a growing danger that nuclear facilities could be targeted by terrorists, either to attack or as a source of nuclear material for weapons.
Mr Blair is also said to be pushing to speed up the planning process so the first of the new stations could be under construction within 10 years and operational in 15.
The news was greeted with horror yesterday by campaigners against nuclear power at Hinkley Point, where the Hinkley B reactor is due to be decommissioned by 2011. They, and many others, believe the site is "in the top three" of those that would be targeted if a new build programme is started. The Government is expected to go for existing nuclear installations where infrastructure is already in place and where they believe public opposition would be slightly less vociferous.
On top of that, permission for another reactor was granted in 1990 and, although the project never got off the ground and the permission lapsed eight years ago, the principle of a Hinkley C has to some extent been already established. But yesterday Jim Duffy, who heads the Stop Hinkley protest group, said the Government is in for a shock if it thinks Hinkley is a soft option.
"If they think the fact that there is already a power station at Hinkley will make things easier, they are very much mistaken, " he said. "They will get a black eye if they think local people will roll over and accept it. This is not what the majority of people want and there would be huge opposition. The pressure is ratcheting up," he added. "It seems as though Tony Blair has already made up his mind that nuclear power is the way we have to go, and that is a worry. Renewable energy is the best way forward." Mr Duffy pointed to a survey carried out in Burnham-on-Sea in 2002 when 83 per cent of 300 people polled on the streets were against the idea of new nuclear reactor.
He is also concerned by the idea of speeding up the lengthy planning process that would surround a new atomic power station. "It is very alarming, " he said.
"Tony Blair seems to be saying that planning procedure needs to be quickened so that the building could start within 10 years. We would need to have a public inquiry, people's questions need to be answered and the public needs to be involved. If he is talking about removing parts of the system or taking short cuts, that is something that will worry a lot of people."
Hunterston in Scotland and Sizewell in Suffolk are the other two sites that may be considered. At the recent Labour Party conference, Mr Blair said the Government would assess all options, including nuclear power, as part of its new 50-year energy policy. Nuclear power met almost a quarter of Britain's energy needs in recent years but that will fall to just four per cent by 2010 if reactors are not replaced.