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Thursday, 7 March, 2002, 16:16 GMT
Q & A: Britain's nuclear industry
A scientific advisor to the UK government says nuclear power production should be revived to reduce harmful emissions of carbon dioxide. The issue of nuclear power has been an emotive one for many years.

Q: How many nuclear power plants are there in Britain?

A: There are 16. Eight are operated by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) and eight by British Energy.

One run by BNFL, at Hinkley in Somerset, is closed and is undergoing decommissioning. Another, at Bradwell in Essex, is due to cease production later this year.

Between them they produce a quarter of Britain's electricity.

One tiny nuclear fuel pellet, about half an inch long, provides the same amount of electricity as one and a half tonnes of coal.

Q: Why are they being closed down and what is the timetable?

A: Most of Britain's power stations are simply too old.

Calder Hall, on the same site as Sellafield in Cumbria, opened in 1956. It was the first in the world to provide electricity.

They were designed to last for 20 to 25 years. Now the oldest are more than 40 years old.

All of the power stations run by BNFL will close by 2010. British Energy's sites at Torness in Scotland and Heysham will be the last to close in 2023.

After that, only Sizewell B in Suffolk will be working. It is the most modern plant, producing energy with a pressurised water reactor and is scheduled to run at least until 2035.

Q: Why is nuclear power so contentious?

There are three charges laid at the nuclear industry's front door.

Firstly that the waste left after production is difficult to store and continues to give off small levels of radiation.

Secondly that in the heightened fear of terrorism after the attacks on the World Trade Tower on 11 September, nuclear facilities could become targets.

And thirdly that an accident at one of the plants could release large quantities of radiation into the atmosphere.

Q: How safe have nuclear plants been in the past?

A: There have been a handful of serious accidents, most memorably at Chernobyl in Russia.

In 1986 a 1000 megawatt reactor at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, 60 miles north of Kiev in the former Soviet Union, exploded.

It was not a nuclear explosion, but radioactivity was spread over a wide area. The accident was rated at the highest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

A United Nations report this year, 16 years after the disaster, said millions of people were still suffering from effects of the fall-out.

In 1979, an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania, US, caused a partial melt-down of a reactor core and rated a level 5 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

There were no casualties and the radiation was largely contained.

Q: Why is the government advisor, Professor David King, suddenly advocating a retention of Britain's nuclear plants?

Carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of traditional fossil fuels like coal and gas, contributes to climate change.

Fossil fuel power stations also churn out harmful sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen which are responsible for acid rain.

In 2023, when Sizewell B is the only plant still in production, it will be providing only 4% of the UK's current electricity needs.

The professor believes nuclear power can help meet the shortfall in "clean" fuel production, although opponents say money would be better spent on energy efficiency technologies

See also:

07 Mar 02 | Sci/Tech
UK 'needs more nuclear stations'
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