Scotland will be a battleground in the controversy over whether to press ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations, because almost half the electricity it consumes is generated from nuclear sources.

Nuclear power accounts for only 35 per cent of the total electricity generated in Scotland. But both Scottish Power and the Scottish and Southern Energy, the two native utility groups, are net exporters to the national grid of electricity generated from coal, hydro-electric stations, renewables and other fuels, and rely heavily on nuclear for their domestic base load supply.

In spite of this reliance, a combination of technical reasons and its distinctive politics creates significant difficulties for ambitions to include Scotland in the early phase of a nuclear construction programme.

Any new nuclear stations are likely to be built beside existing plants, because they have suitable connections to the national grid, a pool of skilled labour and local communities more likely to support a new build initiative to maintain continuity of em-ployment.

Scotland has two of the seven operating advanced gas-cooled nuclear stations: Torness, in east Lothian, which employs 475 people; and Hunterston B, in north Ayrshire, which employs 489. Torness is not due to be decommissioned until 2023, while Hunterston B is due for decommissioning in 2011.

British Energy, which operates the AGR stations, said both Scottish plants would be considered for either five-year or 10-year extension programmes when they were within three years of their due date for closure. The company has just completed such a programme at Dungeness B in Kent, which has extended its life by another 10 years, until 2018.

The prospective longevity of the Scottish plants contrasts with the four Magnox reactors operated by the British Nuclear Group: Dungeness A; Oldbury-on-Severn in south Gloucestershire; Sizewell A in Suffolk; and Wylfa at Angelsey in north Wales. All four are scheduled to close between next year and 2010, and there are no plans to extend their lives.

The relative longevity of the Scottish nuclear stations will be one argument against any new construction. The biggest obstacle, however, is likely to be the increased political uncertainty caused by devolution.

Although nuclear power is an area of policy reserved for the Westminster parliament, the devolved Scottish parliament could block, or at least substantially delay, any proposals by using its powers concerning planning and health and safety.

Jack McConnell, Scotland’s first minister, said earlier this year that the Edinburgh-based executive had the power to stop nuclear power stations being built north of the border, regardless of Westminster’s decision. He said there should be no new plants in Scotland until the issue of managing radioactive waste was resolved.

The Liberal Democrats, Labour’s coalition partners in the Holyrood executive, are also fiercely opposed. Charles Kennedy, their leader at Westminster, said: “Granting planning permission for new nuclear power stations is the responsibility of the Scottish executive. I cannot foresee circumstances in which my colleagues in the Scottish parliament would support that.”

An opinion poll during the general election found 17 per cent of Scots supported more nuclear stations, but 73 per cent backed more wind farms.

The Scottish National party, the main opposition party at Holyrood, also opposes building more nuclear stations.

Richard Lochead, the SNP’s energy spokesman, said: “Rather than spend billions on unwanted and potentially dangerous new nuclear power stations, Scotland should invest in developing our offshore renewable potential and carbon capture technology.”

While Scottish public opinion could change if the UK decides to press ahead with new nuclear power stations, the uncertainties introduced into the equation by devolution look likely to prove decisive, at least in the short term.

Mr Parker of the Nuclear Industry Association said: "I wouldn't be complacent about it; there still a lot to argue for, and we can expect a bit of a backlash when the review starts. It's not a done deal yet."

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