Government will identify sites around Britain suitable for building nuclear plants as part of new energy policy
Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, insisted today that nuclear power has a "relatively good" safety record in this country as he prepared to unveil plans to fast-track a new generation of nuclear power stations.
The government will later identify further sites around Britain that could be suitable for building a nuclear plant amid Tory cries that the plans lack "democratic legitimacy".
Miliband will unveil a series of national policy statements setting out the need for new energy infrastructure including renewables, fossil fuels and gas, as well as an overarching energy statement which will include climate change policy. A separate strategy statement on the nation's ports will also be published.
"The basic message here is: we can't say no to all of the nuclear or all of the low carbon fuels that are out there," the energy secretary told GMTV.
"We need nuclear, we need renewables, we need clean coal, we need all of those things if we are going to make that transition to cleaner energy."
Miliband said it would not be his decision about whether a new nuclear power station is built in an area.
"It is going to be a decision for an independent commission that will take a view about what the local feeling is," he said.
He insisted that there would be consultation with local people both before the planning application was submitted by the commission, as well as after and said that there was "public enthusiasm" in most areas being considered.
The policy statements, which run to 3,000 pages, will be open for consultation until early next year and will act as guidelines for the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), a new central authority which will start accepting planning applications in March.
The aim is to speed up planning decisions and give answers to developers within one year, to end what one official described as the current "long and tortuous" process of winning approval for schemes.
It took six years to steer the Sizewell B power station through the planning process, and officials believe red tape is discouraging investment.
Under changes to the planning laws, the IPC will be able to speed through the proposals for new schemes if it decided they fitted in with the policy statements.
But the shadow energy secretary, Greg Clark, said that a simple ministerial statement on the issue was inadequate and called for a Commons vote to give the process "democratic legitimacy".
"It is a national emergency and it's been left far too late – we've known for the last 10 years that most of our nuclear power fleet would come to the end of its planned life," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"So whatever happens with these statements we've got a black hole, but actually we do need a different planning system, we need a fast track for major items of infrastructure.
"The trouble with the way the government's doing it is, it has no democratic component. The statements will just be read out to MPs without a vote and the decisions will be taken by an unelected, unaccountable official.
"We think it should be a minister taking that decision, accountable to parliament, with the necessary time limit, about three months, so it doesn't delay the process. But it does need to have democratic legitimacy otherwise people will find this an imposition that they will rail against."
But the energy secretary said the government had made the "right distinction" on what politicians and the planning commission should be concentrating on.
He told the Today programme: "Under the planning reforms, we separate the question of need and the question of specific developments, so we are in a sense making the right distinction between what politicians should make a judgment on, which is the question of need, and specific weighing of a particular development, which the IPC will do."
He rejected Clark's claims that the government should have addressed the matter earlier.
"We are making the decision in a timely way," he said. "The lights aren't going to go out. We do have security of supply in this country but as we move towards low carbon alternatives we need to go down the nuclear route..."
Miliband will later today stress what the government believes to be the importance of a diverse energy supply. But the most detail will given in the nuclear policy statement, which will include a forensic assessment of the 11 sites already nominated by energy firms as well as identifying alternatives.
"Because nuclear is controversial, we wanted to make it quite clear where the sites we consider suitable are," said one official.
The policy statements are expected to be a drawing together of already stated policy. As well as the public consultation, which ends in February, a commons select committee has been formed to scrutinise the statements. Other government departments are set to produce similar policy statements on subjects including the water supply and airports.
The IPC will be kept away from the government in an attempt to remove politics from the planning decision. The official said it was not about "concreting over the countryside" but making the system "less labyrinthine". The IPC would, he added, be "inquisitorial rather than adversarial".
Utility firms keen to build plants in Britain, including EDF and E.ON, have long argued for a more certain planning regime.
Energy firms and industry experts have warned of an impending energy gap in Britain unless more large scale projects are hurriedly built.
But green groups expressed dismay at the prospect of new nuclear power and warned that the government could be open to legal challenge if the statements do not properly consider climate change.
They have also raised concerns that people will not be able to influence decisions on major projects because schemes covered by the statements will not be subject to public inquiry.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017