CORRECTION: Britain to end years of wavering over nuclear power
(Fixes name of EDF Energy chief executive in paragraph 12)
By Pete Harrison
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain 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 and adding momentum to atomic energy's worldwide renaissance.
The government called nuclear energy an unattractive option in 2003, but since then surging oil prices have made it more competitive and the focus on cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change has sharpened.
Already, countries such as France and Finland are building new nuclear plants and, in the United States, companies have begun filing license applications, reinforcing the view atomic energy is part of the solution to the world's energy problems.
Nuclear operators say they could have new plants running in Britain by 2017, which would help the government meet its 2020 goals for cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change.
"It is good news that decisions are finally being made. The UK needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while still ensuring that we have secure sources of electricity each day," said Peter Williams, vice president of the Royal Society, Britain's independent scientific academy.
"To accomplish this we must rely on a diverse mix of technologies, including nuclear power. There remain key questions on safety and security," he said.
The government green light is likely to be accompanied by publication of an Energy Bill to be fast-tracked through parliament with 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 British public is divided on the issue, with 44 percent saying companies should have the option of investing in new nuclear power 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, which many interpret as a vote for new nuclear projects.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged last week to "take the difficult decisions on energy security."
Vincent de Rivaz, chief executive of EDF Energy, said the government had to make a compelling case for nuclear power to build public support, given the sensitivities over where plants should be built and how waste should be disposed of.
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 toxic waste from nuclear power generation which will remain for thousands of years is one of the powerful reasons to say atomic energy is not worth the risk.
Environmental group Greenpeace last February won a legal battle to force the government into a full public consultation. 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.
(Editing by Dominic Evans)