As world interest in nuclear power cools, Britain debates new reactor

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It is an unlikely setting to command international attention - a concert hall in a quiet town called Snape, on the Suffolk coast of England northeast of London.

Yet the eyes of energy experts in Europe, North America, and Japan are trained on the hall, and will remain so for about nine months.

From the hall valuable clues will emerge - clues not just to the way Britain will generate electrical power well into the next century, but to whether nuclear generating itself can gather momentum again in the teeth of worldwide recession and popular apprehension.

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Taking place is one of the biggest, most expensive, most publicized, and most important public inquiries in energy yet held in Britain.

The immediate issue is whether Britain should depart from its own gas-cooled reactors and go ahead with a mammoth United States type of pressurized water reactor (PWR) at nearby Sizewell.

The cost would be at least (STR)1 billion ($1.6 billion). Work would begin in April 1985, and other reactors could follow.

The wider issue is public reaction toward such plants in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident in the US four years ago. The reactor there was a PWR similar to the kind under consideration in Sizewell.

In the background lie other potentially lucrative export orders that could go to Sizewell's US contractor, Westinghouse Electric, and design consultant Bechtel of California if Sizewell is finally built.

To the government and the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), which has spent about (STR)10 million developing its evidence, nuclear power is safe, cheap, proven, and available.

Britain, they say, must prepare for the day when North Sea oil begins to run out, and must not be dependent on coal and its militant miners' union.

Today, oil and coal generate 80 percent of British power. Only 12.7 percent comes from nuclear plants, compared with almost 40 percent in France, 35 percent in Sweden, and about 12 percent in the US.

Besides, officials say, Britain must have access to PWR technology. British-developed gas-cooled reactors are larger and too expensive to export.

However, more than 4,000 objectors have registered with the inquiry, ranging from Friends of the Earth, the British coal miners' union, and the Liberal Party , to the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Town and Country Planning Association, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

They claim that nuclear plants are much more expensive than the CEGB will concede, that recession has left Britain with excess power capacity already, that wind, wave, and solar methods are preferable - and that Three Mile Island showed how dangerous PWR plants can be.

Presenting the CEGB case is a mammoth task that will continue until April. CEGB counsel Lord Silsoe spent the opening days stressing safety precautions, which include four separate safety trains, or systems. The US is said here normally to require two.

The inquiry has an engagingly informal air. Staff have set up shop in an adjoining music school, and the entire proceedings will have to yield and move to London when the annual Aldeburgh music festival takes over the hall in the summer.

Critics complain about a lack of funds. In fact, the CEGB wanted the government to provide finances so that it could mount their best possible case. Energy Secretary Nigel Lawson refused.

The result is a flurry of fund-raising raffles (Sir Walter donated a tie), second-hand sales, and sales of heirlooms to bring in demonstrators and opposition witnesses from as far away as the US.

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