Britain fires up new nuclear program

Britain's plan to build two huge new nuclear power stations comes into direct line with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's aim to expand the country's non-oil energy base by the end of the century.

But the cost will be far above recent official predictions, and British power planners have still failed to resolve their dilemmas over the best nuclear power system for future generation.

Energy Secretary David Howell told Parliament that the two stations -- one in Lancashire, the other in Scotland -- would be of the advanced gascooled reactor (AGR) type. The AGR system is British and more expensive to build than pressurized water reactors (PWR).

Mr. Howell's decision sets in motion a policy, solidly backed by Mrs. Thatcher, that eventually will produce one major nuclear power station each year over a decade.

Influential groups within Britain's energy industry would have liked Mr. Howell to scrap the AGR and build PWR stations instead. But the aftermath of the Three Mile Island mishap, the government does not believe it can resolve doubts about PWR safety fast enough to ensure a place for that system in the early phase of the nuclear expansion program.

So Mr. Howell gave his support to AGR with some reluctance. He knows the chances of selling AGRs abroad are slim.

The energy secretary drew whistles of disbelief in the House of Commons when he said the total cost of the two new stations would be 40 percent higher than forecasts made as recently as last summer.

He expects the stations to cost $:1,400 million ($3,000 million) each. For this, Britons will get a nuclear plant capable of generating 1,320 megawatts.

The aim is to have the stations built and pumping power into Britain's power grid six to eight years from now. Contracts will be offered in August.

The AGR decision hung in the balance for some weeks as the Thatcher government seemed to have last-minute doubts about the gas-cooled system. For a while it seemed sufficient money for the stations might not be available. Mr. Howell also received advice that British energy requirements in the late 1980s would probably be lower than earlier estimates.

Before announcing his support for the new project, Mr. Howell had to convince Prime Minister Thatcher that building AGRs was necessary. The government's think tank played a key part in the final decision by recommending that it would be better to build the stations than delay an interim choice of reactors.

Nuclear engineers have redesigned the AGR system and say the stations will have a high safety factor. Engineers are as yet unable to ensure that pressurized water reactors could be proved safe in time for the start-up of the government's long-term nuclear energy program.

Britain's Central Electricity Generating Board still wants the PWR to emerge as the design for the future. Mrs. Thatcher admires France's nuclear program, which is based heavily on a modified pressurized water reactor system.

Mr. Howell is expected soon to authorize a request to Westinghouse in the United States for a license to build a PWR station in Britain. In the meantime the government is waiting for the results of PWR safety studies.

It is calculated that the AGR building cost is around 15 percent higher than for PWR -- a major element in the thinking of Britain's cost-conscious Prime Minister.

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