Sites will be ruled out if they are near heavily populated locations or in areas of seismic risk

The government has set out the criteria for deciding where nuclear power stations can be built.

The consultation on the Strategic Siting Assessment, outlines the process the government will use for choosing new nuclear sites.

It plans to invite site nominations early next year, which will be assessed against a range of factors.

The criteria are divided into two categories – 'exclusionary' and 'discretionary'. Exclusionary criteria include seismic risk and proximity to heavily populated areas and will be used to 'screen out' unacceptable locations.

Discretionary criteria include coastal conditions and levels of environmental protection and will prompt further consultation on a site.

Business secretary John Hutton said: “The strategic siting assessment is the next step towards a Nuclear National Policy Statement. This will help to speed up planning applications while making clear that safety and engagement with local communities are key.”

The government is expecting to publish a list of sites it deems “strategically suitable” for building new plants in 2010.

If the Planning Bill is approved, construction could begin by 2013-14, with the first plant online by 2017, it said.