Nuclear study fuels political uproar

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seems determined to build a new generation of nuclear reactors, similar to the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) that created a near-disaster at Three-Mile Island in the United States in 1979. Mrs. Thatcher this past week received a weighty report from an independent commission recommending that, with safeguards, PWRs would produce the most cost-effective electricity for the Britain of the 21st century.

But the 3,000-page report, compiled by Sir Frank Layfield following the most comprehensive inquiry ever carried out in Britain, has created uproar among environmental groups and seems certain to come under political attack when Parliament debates it in a month's time.

The opposition Labour Party's energy spokesman, Stan Orme, said that, if elected, a Labour government would cancel plans to build the first PWR reactor at Sizewell on the Suffolk coast. The Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance, for its part, declared that it would be ``highly irresponsible'' for the government to go ahead and build a PWR reactor at Sizewell before the next general election.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest group is threatening to hold a massive demonstration outside the House of Commons to demonstrate against what they say is intended to be the construction of at least half a dozen PWRs in various parts of Britain.

The critics quickly spotted an apparent deficiency in the Layfield report: It was completed before the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union and therefore takes no account of what has been learned as a result of that incident.

There seems to be little chance however that Prime Minister Thatcher and her ministers will be prepared to heed the protests. The Layfield report, based on 340 days of public hearings, is emphatic about the merits of the PWR system.

The report found:

That considerations of national economic interest outweighed local protests about the possible environmental impact of a PWR at the small village of Sizewell.

That a PWR based on US designs would probably be more economical than a British-built advanced gas-cooled reactor.

That the likelihood of coal-generated electricity being cheaper than power produced by a PWR was ``remote.''

That the PWR option would give Britain greater ``fuel diversity'' in the future.

Thatcher is an enthusiastic supporter of nuclear power and is expected to order an early go-ahead on the construction of a PWR at Sizewell at a cost of some 1.6 million. Whitehall sources predict that Thatcher will give little quarter to critics who argue that, in the light of Chernobyl, Britain should abandon nuclear power altogether.

Among the inhabitants of the small East Anglian fishing village of Sizewell, the Layfield recommendations produced sharp reactions. One fisherman said: ``It will mean ten years of environmental disruption.'' He forecast trouble between fishermen and construction workers when they arrived.

But other residents noted that Sizewell suffers from serious unemployment and suggested that the 4,000 site workers needed to build the reactor would bring prosperity to the village.

Thatcher's desire to expand nuclear electricity generation puts her at odds with many Britons, according to opinion polls. One recent survey reported that half of those interviewed thought a Chernobyl-style disaster could take place in Britain; some 54 percent said they opposed the building of more nuclear power plants in Britain.

Political analysts say that if Thatcher decides on early construction of a PWR at Sizewell she may be taking a political gamble. The extent of opposition to nuclear energy in Western Europe remains considerable - a fact born out by the Jan. 25 election in West Germany, in which the anti-nuclear Greens made important gains.

One Tory Party insider said: ``There are not many votes in nuclear power, especially among the middle classes.'' He conceded that Labour and the Alliance might be able to pick up some support by adopting a strong anti-nuclear stance.

Although the Layfield report strongly supports a new phase of Britain's nuclear program, the government intends also to go on building coal-fired stations for the foreseeable future. Eighty percent of the country's electricity now comes from coal stations, and over the next decade, when Sizewell would still be under construction, that proportion may rise.

Britain's energy minister, Peter Walker, has said that he is fairly certain that British engineers would be able to avoid the errors that led to the Chernobyl disaster. Before Christmas, Walker traveled to Russia to inspect the Chernobyl site. He returned to Britain saying that he had been impressed by the Russians' success in containing the radiation leak.

Opponents of the Sizewell project are likely to mount a strong attack on the Layfield report's estimates of the future cost of nuclear-generated electricity compared with power produced by coal stations. In deciding that by the year 2,000 nuclear-generated electricity would be cheaper, the report assumed that coal at the time would cost $75 a ton. The latest estimates, however, suggest that in the year 2,000 the price will be closer to $50 a ton. -30-{et

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