In the plush surroundings of the Army & Navy Club on London's Pall Mall, Mike Alexander, chief executive of British Energy, was holding court. Assembled before him were more than a hundred leading figures from the UK's energy industry - all there at the behest of the Energy Industries Club, an industry body that keeps its membership secret.
The point of the event, held just a few weeks ago on 15 March, was to hear a keynote speech, to be delivered by Alexander, with the title "UK Nuclear Energy: fuel of the future?" It was not, however, a purely private affair. Around the room were a selection of top opinion formers: analysts, corporate traders and members of the media. The journalists could not report the event directly - the invitations were based on so-called Chatham House rules, meaning it was for "background use only". What they were meant to take home was a message: nuclear power is coming back.
Alexander's speech itself was simple. Within the next 20 years, he said, Britain's nuclear power stations will come to the end of their operating lives. To meet the country's climate-change targets, they must be replaced with some form of power generation that does not produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Anywhere else, that line might have prompted some sharp questions. But for Alexander, whose company owns two-thirds of Britain's nuclear power stations, the audience was an unusually receptive one - and not just because of the fine wines.
They laughed at his mockery of the nuclear-waste problem: his plants produced a trivial volume of waste, equivalent to 24 double-decker buses a year, he said. A ripple of "hear, hears" greeted his suggestion that the next generation of reactors would produce half that waste and a lot more power. And when he cracked a couple of jokes about windpower, gusts of raucous laughter went round the room.
Taken on its own, it might have seemed like just another business lunch. For some of the guests, however, the proceedings were a little familiar. They had heard the same arguments and met the same people at a series of other events in the past few months. It was all part of a carefully planned strategy. From being a piece of history, the nuclear industry - a fading dinosaur that has wasted billions and left a toxic legacy that will cost billions more - is pushing itself back into the headlines, rebranded as the only source of the cheap, secure and clean energy demanded by modern Britain. The real "green" alternative . . .
On 23 March, just a few days after the Army & Navy Club event, some of Britain's most senior business journalists found themselves invited for breakfast at the discreet St Stephen's Club in Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster.
Their host was Amec, one of Britain's leading engineering companies, and the menu of speakers was even more select. Sir David King, the government chief scientist, Brian Wilson, the former energy minister, and Dipesh Shah, chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, each spoke about how Britain needed nuclear if it was to stop the lights going out. Again the meeting was on Chatham House rules, but this time Wilson confirmed what took place. "The industry has been working together to push nuclear power up the agenda recently," he said. "The growing interest in climate change and security of energy supply - plus the election - meant the time was right."
Nuclear power had been in the news earlier this year, but only sporadically. It was after these and other events that the articles turned from a trickle to a torrent - and suddenly nuclear was big news again. Nothing had occurred politically. There had been no reports, scandals, technical breakthroughs or new policies. What had happened was that a group of journalists had taken the bait offered them by a few canny public relations experts.
It was a spectacular PR coup, but how had it happened and who was behind it?
For those who were watching, the signs were there many months ago when some of the biggest firms in the nuclear business began a round of recruitment, taking on high-powered new media directors, political advisers and public affairs companies. Last October, British Energy appointed Craig Stevenson, formerly Monsanto's top UK lobbyist, as head of government affairs. Then, in December, BE enlisted Helen Liddell, the former energy minister, to provide "strategic advice" on a short contract for a fee of roughly £15,000 (Liddell has since been made Britain's ambassador to Australia). All this was on top of the £1m BE paid to another PR firm, Financial Dynamics.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, the new public body charged with cleaning up the mess from Britain's previous nuclear programme, poached Jon Phillips, Heathrow Airport's head of communications. He will cost well over £70,000 a year, and will have a deputy and nine other press officers working under him. But Phillips was the man who led the British Airports Authority's successful campaign for a fifth terminal at Heathrow despite furious public opposition. The nuclear industry needs people with that kind of track record.
At the same time, Nirex, the waste disposal body that became independent of the nuclear industry last month, has taken on the Promise public relations firm to promote a multimillion-pound rebranding and renaming exercise (this is on top of an exist- ing contract with Good Relations). And last year the UKAEA employed Grayling Political Strategy to help raise its profile.
All this activity, documented in trade magazines such as PR Week, shows that in the year or so before the general election, the nuclear industry slowly but surely put together a classy public relations act. And it was not just targeting politicians and the media.
In briefings around the City, the energy companies have been scaring the captains of British industry silly with warnings of how half Britain's generating capacity - coal as well as nuclear - will have to shut down by 2020. They did not have to exaggerate. The widely shouted fact that all but one of Britain's nuclear plants will have to shut by 2023 has obscured the similar fate awaiting most of the country's coal-fired stations, which produce 36 per cent of the nation's power. They will close because the EU's Large Combustion Plant directive will set efficiency and pollution standards that most cannot possibly meet when it takes effect in 2008.
For the nuclear lobby, Britain's increasingly desperate energy outlook presented a golden opportunity. Over the past six months, the result of the industry's PR drive has been a significant change in the mood of major corporations towards nuclear power.
Politicians were carefully targeted, too. For example, the Nuclear Industry Association, the trade association for British nuclear companies, has secured for itself a role running the secretariat to the all-party parliamentary group on nuclear energy. As the election approached, its seminars became increasingly apocalyptic - warning that if the government did not embrace nukes soon it would be just a few years before the lights started winking out, with Labour assured a place in history as the party responsible.
Keith Parker, chief executive of the NIA, confirms that the industry carefully co-ordinated and exploited the build-up to the election. "We discussed these things a lot," he said, "and we did see the election as an opportunity. There were several other things coming at the same time, such as the government's review of renewables [due out in June]. It gave us a good chance to raise the profile of nuclear power."
The campaign co-ordinated by the NIA was designed to focus not on the historically dubious benefits of nuclear power but on the shortcomings of all the alternatives. Windpower and other renewables were "intermittent and unreliable"; a switch to gas meant relying on "dodgy" foreign exporters; and coal was simply primitive. But the campaign was also carefully finessed: none of the rival energy sources was dismissed outright; instead, the lobbyists stressed the need for a mixture of generating capacity - with a revived nuclear industry at its heart.
Civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry also saw the election as a chance to promote nuclear power. A few days after 5 May, a confidential DTI briefing paper arguing the case for nuclear energy was leaked to the Sunday newspapers. Written by the director general of the department's energy group, Joan MacNaughton, for the incoming Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alan Johnson, it said: "The case for looking at the nuclear question again quickly is that if we want to avoid a very sharp fall in nuclear's contribution to energy supplies (some fall is certain and has already begun), we should need to act soon given the long lead times (ten years?) in getting a new nuclear station up and running."
As leaks go it was audacious, blatantly aimed at ambushing Johnson before he had even read his brief, let alone mastered it. But it was also the culmination of a pattern of briefings in which senior DTI officials have tried to swing the nuclear debate their way. At an international energy conference in Paris last June, the director of the DTI energy strategy group, Adrian Gault, laid out the department's vision of how Britain would get its electricity by 2050 and still cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Fundamental to that vision was that nuclear energy would be producing up to half the country's power. Gault's Paris speech was delivered behind closed doors, but soon made its way on to the front pages of the UK's national newspapers. His pro-nuclear message has since been reinforced repeatedly by the DTI's highest-profile personalities. The week after the election, Sir David King was openly saying that, in order to hit Britain's climate-change targets, "we need another generation of nuclear-fission stations".
The DTI's commitment to building a new round of nuclear plants goes back a long way and extends much further than mere speeches and briefings. In 2001, the DTI nuclear industries directorate signed up the department and Britain to taking part in an international consortium to build the next generation of nuclear reactors. Whichever designs are chosen they will almost certainly be built by an American or British company.
For the UK (and the DTI) a nuclear revival would mean billions pouring into science faculties and engineering companies.
This prospect could help explain the growing interest being taken in the nuclear debate by august bodies such as the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Civil Engineers, which have also been discreetly lobbying the government to look again at nuclear power.
Last year the RAE put out a paper on electricity prices suggesting that new nuclear plants could produce power far more cheaply than even coal. For those with long memories, it was reminiscent of the "power too cheap to meter" promise made by Walter Marshall, one of the architects of Britain's atomic reactor programme in the 1950s. But, tellingly, the RAE has also told the government that it must create a market for nuclear by ensuring the "long-term stability of electricity prices". This is shorthand for the nuclear industry's real agenda: a new system of subsidies to ensure it is never again exposed to the chill winds of a free market. The industry even has a name for it: the Security of Supply Obligation.
This is what will lie at the heart of the next big lobbying push - ensuring the obligation (to pay) falls directly on consumers.
Ian Fell, an RAE fellow and former professor of energy conversion at Newcastle University who now works as a consultant to the government and industry, has trodden the corridors of power at the DTI many times. As an eminent insider, he is well placed to have the last word on the nuclear charm offensive.
"There isn't exactly a conspiracy to bring it up the agenda," he comments, "but in the past few months civil servants have been saying [to] wait till around the election, because that's when nuclear power would become a big issue again.
"It happened as they predicted."
Jonathan Leake is the Sunday Times environment editor
Dan Box writes on energy for the Sunday Times