LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair opened a fierce debate on energy and the environment Tuesday, saying the British government will consider building a new generation of nuclear power plants. In a speech briefly delayed by anti-nuclear activists, Blair said an energy study due to be finished next summer would look specifically at nuclear power.
He acknowledged that reconsideration of a longstanding move away from the use of atomic reactors to generate electricity is a "difficult and challenging" issue.
"What we need is a serious debate, not one conducted by protest or demonstration to stop people expressing their views," he said, referring to two Greenpeace activists who climbed into the rafters of a London conference hall, forcing Blair's speech to be moved to a nearby site.
Many Europeans have strongly opposed nuclear power plants since the 1986 Chernobyl reactor disaster increased fears about its safety, but Britain is not alone in beginning to rethink that aversion.
Finland this year became the first western European country to begin construction of a reactor since 1991. France, which already generates much of its electricity with nuclear plants, plans to start building a new-generation reactor in 2007.
The conservatives in Germany's new coalition government want to keep some nuclear plants going, although the Social Democrats in the power-sharing Cabinet insist on sticking with a plan to shutter all those facilities by 2021. Italy's industry minister said earlier this year that the public's negative feelings about atomic power were weakening.
Opponents, including many in Blair's governing Labour Party, worry about accidents or terrorist attacks at nuclear plants and the need to dispose of radioactive waste safely.
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Advocates say nuclear power, which does not generate greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, is environmentally beneficial. They also believe it will become increasingly necessary as world oil supplies tighten.
"The issue back on the agenda with a vengeance is energy policy," Blair said. "Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency."
For Britain, the problem is getting worse as oil and natural gas production in its own North Sea fields declines. Blair said that by 2020, coal and nuclear plants that now generate more than 30 percent of the country's electricity supply will be decommissioned.
"Some of this will be replaced by renewables, but not all of it can," he argued. "In Britain, on any basis, we also have the issue of our transition from being self-sufficient in gas supply to being an importer."
A government policy paper on energy resources will be issued early in the summer of 2006 and will address the possibility of a new generation of nuclear reactors that could help provide enough energy for Britain, Blair said.
Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks, who is leading the review, said it will also look at coal, gas, renewable energy sources and other new technologies. It will also examine energy efficiency and the energy used for transportation.
Nuclear power now provides a fifth of Britain's electricity, but the country's 12 nuclear power plants are aging and unless replaced will provide only 4 percent of electricity by 2010.
David Willetts, trade and industry spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, said the energy review was crucial.
"People want to know that when they flick the switch the light will come on, that their fuel bills are affordable; and that we meeting our targets to cut (carbon dioxide) emissions," he said.
Greenpeace rejected the idea of building new nuclear plants.
"Nuclear power is not the answer to climate change - it's costly, dangerous and a terrorist target," said Stephen Tindale, director of the group's British branch.
the two Greenpeace protesters delayed Blair's speech when they got up in the rafters of the conference hall and unfurled a banner reading: "Nuclear: wrong answer." Police said they were detained on suspicion of aggravated trespassing.
Security staff cleared the hall of delegates and Blair instead spoke in a cramped room where participants and the press had to stand.
"This is going to be a surreal occasion," he quipped as he started his speech.