Britain's nuclear industry is being put at risk by delay in fixing the price for energy to be generated by the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, energy experts have warned.
Eighteen leading nuclear scientists say plans to build five new plants by 2030 could fail because of a lack of progress on the first of the projects.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph they believe a "fleet" of new power stations could lower household bills, provide a source of low-carbon energy and position Britain as a world leader in the nuclear market.
The Government is in talks with French company EDF Energy over the "strike price" for energy from its £14bn Hinkley Point C power station on the Somerset coast: but the experts said apparent deadlock "undermines" the ambition and could deter investors.
EDF has said it is "shovel ready" to start the massive ten-year project, which will generate thousands of construction jobs, but the "strike price" for the energy has yet to be agreed. Negotiations have been dragging on for months.
The Government is wary of paying the company too high a price. Any deal will guarantee EDF a price for electricity for at least 30 years, paid through levies on consumer energy bills. A decision is also vital for EDF to attract a new financial partner after Centrica decided not to exercise an option to take a 20% stake in EDF's reactor-building programme.
The industry experts, who include Professor Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the Government, warned it is "increasingly concerned at the apparent slow progress of negotiations".
The deal is "about more than an isolated project" and plans to grow Britain's nuclear industry "could be undermined if a deal on the pioneer project is not resolved satisfactorily".
MPs are also concerned that delay could damage the industry. Tim Yeo, the head of the Commons energy and climate change select committee, said: "There are a significant number of jobs (at stake). We need to rekindle this industry if we are not to lose the skills we have in the nuclear energy sector."
Tony Lodge, of the Centre for Policy Studies, said an escalating tax on carbon emissions was introduced this month and if nuclear plants were not built, Britain would be stuck with the levy but few alternative sources of energy.
Last month ministers pushed back the timetable for developing 16 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power at five new plants from 2025 to 2030.
Albert Owen, the Labour MP and member of the Energy Select Committee, said the situation "doesn't paint a good picture" and "is bound to cause concerns" for future developers. "More importantly it's going to create a vacuum that will be filled by doubters," he added. "There is a good opportunity here for Britain which is why it is incumbent on the Government to move forward and not to stall as it appears to be."
John Robertson, also a Labour member of the Energy Select Committee, agreed progress should have been faster but added that EDF Energy may be equally to blame.
"I think they are using these people to force the Government to make a decision on the strike price," he said.
A Department for Energy and Climate Change said: "We are in ongoing discussions with EDF over the Hinkley Point project. Progress is being made. As ministers have always said, we will not do a deal at any price."
EDF said it had nothing to add to its statement following the approval of planning permission in March, but that the project is a huge opportunity.