The much-heralded UK government energy review has confirmed that a new program of civil nuclear power is to be initiated to replace existing atomic capacity as this becomes life-expired.

The announcement of plans to build as many as six new reactors underlines much of the speculation that preceded the review’s release. Indeed, many critics sharply criticized prime minister Tony Blair for his comments to business leaders that nuclear power was ‘back on the agenda with a vengeance’, which predated the review by several weeks.

Ahead of the review’s release on July 11, Mr Blair’s official spokesman rebuked critics by saying that wishful thinking will not keep the lights on.

You have to think hard about the energy gap. The reality is, if we do nothing, the amount of energy we get from nuclear will decline from 20% to 6%.

In releasing the review to parliament, trade and industry minister Alistair Darling said: Our analysis suggests that, alongside other low carbon generating options, a new generation of nuclear power stations could make a contribution to reducing carbon emissions and reducing our reliance on imported energy.

The return to nuclear will doubtless grab the headlines in the wake of the report’s release, as opposition politicians branded the review a ‘foregone conclusion’, and the environmental lobby questions the commitment to atomic power when serious reservations remain about how plants can be effectively decommissioned and waste disposed of safely.

The government has ruled out formal subsidies for the nuclear sector, believing that the private sector can undertake a new build project without additional funds from the state. However the likely protagonists in the program, such as current nuclear generator British Energy and French-owned EDF Energy, are set to demand long term fixed price power contracts in return for committing to any investment.

It will be for the private sector to initiate, fund, construct and operate new nuclear plants and to cover the full cost of decommissioning and their full share of long-term waste management costs. But in view of the potential benefits for our public policy goals, the government proposes to address potential barriers to new nuclear build, the review says.

By early next year, the Health and Safety Executive [the UK’s workplace safety body] will develop guidance for potential promoters of new nuclear power stations. This will explain how they can obtain assessment of possible reactor designs before committing significant sums to planning and construction, the government adds.

However, in the face of a mixed reaction to leaked previews of the review’s content, the government is widely thought to have boosted the ‘green’ aspects of the report, and Mr Darling has duly increased the target for renewable generation’s share of the energy mix from its present 4% to 20% or more.

Central to this will be an overhaul of the renewables obligation (RO), a scheme that compels electricity generators to ensure a certain proportion of their output comes from green sources. The government believes that while the RO has helped drive development of onshore windfarms, it has been much less successful for other forms of renewable energy. An overhauled RO will increase the incentive for generators to produce – or buy in – power from tidal, hydro and solar sources.

Since his appointment as trade secretary, Mr Darling has stressed the need for more work to be done on energy efficiency, and the government has confirmed that regulations governing the energy efficiency of new homes and public buildings will become more stringent in future.

An overhaul of the planning laws is also a key component of the review: changes are planned to make gas storage capacity easier to construct, as well as shortening the lead times for new nuclear plants.

The review also serves to highlight the concern clearly felt by government over the risks of import dependency, in particular gas supply. There is little doubt that the dispute at the start of 2006 between Russia and Ukraine proved a wake-up call to the UK, and may have tilted the energy debate further in favor of nuclear.

However the soaring wholesale cost of gas – coupled with lingering doubts over the transparency of the wholesale market in Europe and the related use of pipeline capacity to the UK – mean further investment in gas fired electricity generation was always going to be unlikely.

More surprising is the little-noticed return of coal as a key strand of the energy mix. The review argues that more must be done to develop ‘clean coal’ technology that would enable the fuel to be burnt without hindering the UK’s ability to meet its climate change commitments. Under-sea burial of CO2 emissions is likely to be a key focus of future research spending.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an emerging technology which could reduce the carbon emissions of coal or gas power stations by 80 to 90%. If CCS were economic and technically feasible on a large scale, it could deliver substantial reductions in carbon emissions, not just in the UK, but also in rapidly developing countries such as China and India, the review states.