updated 7/11/2006 5:31:06 PM ET 2006-07-11T21:31:06

Britain unveiled its energy plan for the coming decades Tuesday, saying nuclear power could make a “significant contribution” to the country’s needs as it seeks to reduce dependence on imported fuel and cut the emissions blamed for global warming.

Trade Secretary Alistair Darling said increasing energy efficiency and boosting the use of renewable power sources the next 30-40 years would be key, and nuclear energy could also make a “significant contribution.”

“A mix of energy supply remains essential and we should not be over-dependent on one source if we’re going to maintain security of supply in the future,” he told Parliament.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, who once opposed nuclear power, said Tuesday that “what’s changed my thinking is not just climate change, but the fact that we’re going to move from being self-sufficient in basic energy to a big importer.”

Blair argues Britain needs nuclear power to keep it from becoming overly dependent on fuel imports from the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia as its North Sea oil reserves diminish.

He says that despite environmental concerns about the safety of nuclear plants, they are necessary if Britain wants to cut its emissions of the gases like carbon dioxide that are blamed for global warming. Nuclear plants do not produce such gases.

Britain’s 23 nuclear power stations supply about 20 percent of the country’s electricity — but all but one are due to be closed down by 2023.

Alan Duncan, energy spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, said the new energy plan lacked substance and avoided tough decisions. It failed to make a real commitment to nuclear power despite Blair’s support for it, he said.

Blair has claimed that without new nuclear power plants, Britain will rely on gas for 55 percent of its energy needs by 2020 — up from 38 percent currently. As much as 90 percent of that gas would be imported, he has said, leaving Britain dangerously dependent on the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia.

But government advisers on sustainable energy, lawmakers and many environmentalists challenge Blair’s view, claiming he has failed to secure support for a new nuclear program and has dismissed potential alternatives. They, like Blair, are worried about tackling climate change.

“The government is going to have to stop looking for an easy fix to our climate change and energy crises — there simply isn’t one,” said Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, an independent advisory body to the government.

Britain has lagged behind other European nations in boosting its use of renewable energy such as wind and solar power. Germany, the world’s largest producer of wind power, will shut down all its nuclear plants by about 2021.

Tony Juniper, British director of Friends of the Earth, said that while the new report’s proposals to boost use of renewables and increase efficiency would be welcome, far more is needed if Britain is to begin cutting the emissions blamed for global warming.

“We need more than this review, we need a legal framework that’s going to send a consistent sign to the economy that we have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.

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