BRITAIN must press ahead with new coal and nuclear power stations to keep the nation’s lights on, Business Secretary John Hutton said yesterday.

He told the Labour Party conference, in Manchester, there was an international battle for energy security, with much of the world’s resources in unstable regions.

Mr Hutton rejected the criticisms of the environmental lobby, which has protested against a new generation of nuclear and coal-fired power plants, insisting the Government took its climate change responsibilities seriously.

He said: “Coal is a critically important fuel for the UK.

Flexible. Available. And it will help us reduce our reliance on imported gas. There is no sense in our turning our backs on coal. Let’s keep cleaning it up, not ruling it out.”

Mr Hutton said by 2020, up to 80 per cent of the UK’s gas will have to be imported, “much of it from the most unstable regions on the planet”.

In a speech watched from the conference platform by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr Hutton called for a “renaissance” in nuclear energy, as well as an expansion in renewable generation.

He said events in Georgia and fluctuations in the price of oil underlined the need for the UK to have a secure supply of energy.

Mr Hutton said: “The next decade will mean a new era for renewable energy in the UK with a seven-fold increase in clean energy from our abundant natural resources, on land, sea and air.

“It will mean a renaissance in nuclear power. Low carbon, reliable, secure energy.”

His views came a day after he was accused of “dilly dallying”

on the nuclear issue.

A conference fringe meeting, organised by the nuclear industry, drew support from a number of MPs, as well as union leaders representing workers in the sector.

Dougie Rooney, national officer of the Unite union, told the meeting: “Nuclear has a major role to play in future energy generation, but if there is any problem it is that we are dilly dallying.

“We need to get on and do the job.”