Nuclear crisis could trigger UK coalition meltdown
The Mole: The official coalition line is pro-nuclear but that’s not how most Lib Dems feel
Tory ministers are braced for a mini-earthquake in the coalition government over their plans for a massive expansion of British nuclear plants. In the wake of the nightmare in Japan, all Britain's nuclear power plants are to undergo a safety review - but it is the coalition between Lib Dems and the Conservatives that needs serious stress-testing.
The rest of Europe has gone into a controlled panic about nuclear power post-Fukushima.
The Germans, with a strong green tradition, have introduced a three-month moratorium on their nuclear extension plans, and ordered the temporary shut down of seven pre-1980s plants.
Italy is holding a referendum in the summer which is almost certain to vote No to new nuclear plants in the country.
France is holding firm for the moment, because they rely on nuclear power for 75 per cent of their power.
After a meeting of EU energy ministers on Tuesday, at which the review of safety at nuclear plants was ordered, energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger said: "The unthinkable has occurred. Energy policy faces a fundamental new beginning."
David Cameron has already declared that Britain’s record on nuclear power is "excellent". This is not true. Britain's first reactor, at Windscale in Cumbria, had to be shut down in 1957 to avoid a disaster. Its safety measures would have made Heath Robertson's designs look sophisticated. And in 2005 a beach had to be closed because of a dangerous leak.
Despite that, Cameron will insist that the new stress-testing is merely a precaution to make sure that the reactors can be shut down if they are compromised. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not part of the perceived threat to UK nuclear plants - though terrorism is.
The Tories have a tradition of backing nuclear power, and are able to claim that it is an essential part of the government's strategy for reducing CO2 emissions.
But the Liberal Democrats campaigned against Gordon Brown's decision to expand Britain's nuclear power system and then had to swallow their opposition to nuclear energy in order to gain power in the coalition with Cameron's Conservatives.
They were accused of quietly dropping a 'No to Nuclear' feature from their official website - all part of the price Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was prepared to pay for a share of power.
Now that willingness to ignore the risks of nuclear power is being tested to the limit. Clegg knows that the rank-and-file members who backed him at Sheffield last weekend can only take so much heat on nuclear power.
With the Lib Dems poll ratings already in free fall ahead of the May 5 local elections, Cameron and Clegg are now on alert for a meltdown in the coalition. ·
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