Western Daily Press, BY CHRIS ROE, 16 February 2007

The Government's push for new nuclear power stations in the UK is today in turmoil after a judge ruled its handling of the matter was unlawful.

Mr Justice Sullivan yesterday said consultation was seriously flawed before Ministers announced support for atomic energy last July.

The embarrassing ruling forced Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling to say the Government would now consult properly, though it still believed nuclear was the way forward.

Industry experts believe the decision will delay the arrival of any new-build stations at sites such as Hinkley Point, on the Bristol Channel in Somerset .

Mr Justice Sullivan said that the consultation before last July's decision was procedurally unfair and in some respects not merely inadequate but also misleading.

The Government was given permission to appeal, though Mr Darling said later that it might be better just to consult again on the nuclear issue. He denied the original consultation was seriously flawed.

He said: "The thing that concerns me more than anything else is that we are in a race against time here.

"Climate change is a major problem for us, we cannot become overly dependent on oil and gas for generating our energy.

"That is why the Government believed that nuclear ought to play a part in that energy mix.

"Clearly the best thing to do now is to accept the judge's verdict, to learn from what went wrong, to put it right and consult properly and to make sure we can get the process back on track."

Yesterday's legal case was brought by Greenpeace, which accused the Government of reneging on its promise to carry out the fullest consultation before making a decision on nuclear new-build.

The judge upheld its complaint that the Government failed to present clear proposals and information on two crucial issues surrounding a new generation of nuclear power stations, disposal of radioactive waste and the costs of new build.

Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Duncan said: "This is an astonishing ruling. What it really says is that the Government has been shown up as fundamentally deceitful."

The legal bombshell came just two days after British Energy, which runs Hinkley Point B nuclear power station, announced it was looking for partners for possible new nuclear power stations at sites including Hinkley.

Martin Pearce, a spokesman for British Energy, said the judge's decision had been disappointing but it would push on with its programme. "This country is going to be facing a potential energy gap and we need to be pushing forward now to be investing in infrastructure to ensure we have the right balance for our energy," he said.

"As far as we are concerned, the argument still remains that nuclear power can make a major contribution and we should be looking towards new-build."

The judgment was however welcomed by Stop Hinkley, which has flagged up concerns about the environmental effects of nuclear power.

The protest group's co-ordinator Jim Duffy said: "This knocks back any credibility the nuclear project ever had.

" Downing Street took over what should have been a scientific consultation and bent the process to promote Tony Blair's plan.

"The High Court has seen through that illegal sham.

"Hinkley C now looks more doubtful and certainly much further in the future."

The Government's Energy White Paper, expected to contain more details of its ideas for new nuclear builds, was due to be published next month to enable the industry to move ahead with its planning.

Yesterday a spokesman was unable to say if it would be delayed by the judge's ruling.

He added that the judgment was about consultation, not the principle of nuclear power.

The existing Hinkley B power station employs about 650 people full time, including contractors, with an annual wage bill of about £25 million. It is due to be decommissioned from 2011.

Usually it produces enough electricity for about one million homes though it has been shut since November for emergency work on its cracked boiler tubes.

Permission was granted for a Hinkley C power station on the site in 1990 after a mammoth planning battle. It has since lapsed but British Energy revealed on Tuesday it was interested in building another power station at Hinkley.

Supporters of nuclear power say a new power station would help plug the energy gap with zero-carbon electricity and also safeguard hundreds of well-paid local jobs.

Opponents argue that the costs of nuclear are astronomical and there is still no solution to the problem of nuclear waste.

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