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SPOT the difference: A little over two years ago, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne was absolutely clear about his opposition to nuclear power, dismissing it as an irrelevant sideshow and a “failed technology”.

Then, earlier this month, in performing a U-turn that must have made his head spin, he said nuclear power would, in fact, be an important part of our energy mix as he announced that the first of a new generation of nuclear reactors would come on stream before 2018.

Why the change? Quite simply, Mr Huhne has been forced to grow up. What he said in Opposition really didn’t matter. He could adopt all kinds of silly and irresponsible policies – and the Liberal Democrats have got lots of them – but no one really took much notice.

But now he is in power and what he says does actually makes a difference to people’s lives. His reputation will no longer rest on empty soundbites to appeal to fashionable opinion, but on how he performs in his job.

And, quite, simply he can no longer afford to wallow in the self-indulgent eco fantasies of the green movement. If the lights aren’t going to go off on his watch, as he put it, he can’t rely on handing out a few draught excluders and building more taxpayer-subsidised windmills.

Britain faces an energy crisis within a decade, with power cuts a very real possibility. Under EU legislation, nine oil- and coal-fired plants will be forced to close, and four nuclear power plants will shut down because they have come to the end of their lives.

And because the modern world relies so heavily on computing power, the impact on our economy will be much more severe than the last time we faced widespread power cuts, in the three-day week of the 1970s.

The only way of avoiding this catastrophe is by adopting the only low-carbon, cheap and reliable source of electrical power – and that means building new nuclear power plants alongside clean coal and gas plants.

Renewables, such as wind, wave and solar power – although expensive and intermittent – will have a role to play, but a relatively minor one.

To his immense credit, Mr Huhne has realised this, although, risibly, he tries to pretend that his previous opposition to nuclear power has been “misunderstood” and that he was, in fact, in favour all along.

But there is one nagging worry. Mr Huhne continues to insist that there will be no public subsidy for nuclear power, even though we subsidise wind power through our electricity bills.

Wouldn’t it be sensible to take some of this subsidy – a hand-out worth £4.4bn since 2002 – and spend it on proven nuclear technology instead of wasting it on windmills?

Mr Huhne has taken the first step on the road to a sensible energy policy. Let’s hope he can complete the journey.

Yorkshire Post, 19 August 2010

Editor’s Note: Better still, let’s scrap energy subsidies altogether.