THE North-East could become a major force in the nuclear power industry, the way it was for coal, the former head of British Nuclear Group believes.

Lawrie Haynes yesterday put the case in favour of nuclear power at a debate in Yarm, near Stockton, organised by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

He said it was "inevitable" that nuclear power would become a major source of the UK's energy and that the North-East could become a key hub.

Chris Haine, North-East regional co- ordinator of the Green Party, put the case against.

In January, British Energy, owners of Hartlepool power station, revealed plans to build a replacement reactor that would safeguard 700 jobs.

The announcement followed the Government's support for a new generation of nuclear power plants.

Mr Haynes told delegates: "The North-East was one of the major UK sources of coal, which drove the industrial might of the UK.

"Nuclear power could provide us with the opportunity to develop a nuclear supply industry that could position an area as a keen contributor to the world market.

"The price for a new nuclear power station is £1.5bn, that is £1.5bn worth of work available for this area. It would employ 3,000 people from highly trained engineers to construction workers.

"I think there is a real opportunity for the North-East to step in and fill that vacuum."

Mr Haynes said he believed in a "balanced mix" approach to generating energy.

But with other forms, such as wind and solar power, not generating great amounts of electricity and Britain likely to be dependent on foreign countries for supplies of oil and gas within a century, he said: "Nuclear power is an essential element of the mix of energy going forward. Security of supply (of electricity) is a major issue for all of us in the UK."

After the meeting he also gave some of the reasons why the North-East could be a major player in the nuclear industry.

He said: "In Hartlepool you already have a group of more than 700 people who are used to operating an advanced gas reactor.

"One of the most important things, however, is that people who work on a nuclear power station are trained in the safety systems of nuclear power and it is a massively technical skill set to know how to adhere to the Nuclear Installations Act.

"The obligations as a skill set are above the normal. The knowledge that people have, I think that could be very important in educating other people who could go into the next phase of nuclear build."

Rather than nuclear power, Mr Haine believed the key to meeting Britain's future energy demand was for people to stop wasting the supplies available.

He said: "A new nuclear programme would give out the wrong signal to consumers and businesses, that a quick technical fix is all that is required, neglecting the need for energy efficiency.

It is not so much a case of keeping the lights on as learning to turn them off.

"We need it to become as antisocial to leave a light on in an empty room as it is to smoke."

The event was organised as part of ICE president David Orr's two-day visit to the region.

He said: "Our vision is to see civil engineering at the heart of society, so what question could be more central to society's needs than our future supply of energy to this country."