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

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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.

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.

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