OPPOSITION to new nuclear power stations is stronger in the North-East than elsewhere in England, a survey has found.

More than 100 people were quizzed after taking part in a day-long Government-sponsored meeting in Newcastle to explore the issue.

The Newcastle survey found that only 43 per cent of people backed a new generation of nuclear plants, with 41 per cent opposed.

The result was closer than the average eight per cent margin across the country, where 45 per cent were in favour and 37 per cent against.

It suggests the Government faces an uphill battle to convince people in the North-East to back more nuclear power stations, which could include a new one at Hartlepool.

Even a narrow pro-nuclear majority is disputed by environmental groups, who withdrew from the meetings after branding the consultation a "farce".

The green groups said the negative aspects of nuclear power - its high cost and disposal of radioactive waste - were being shrouded from people in a "public relations stitch-up".

Representatives of local authorities, energy companies, business, consumer groups, unions, faith groups and academia gathered in Newcastle a week ago.

There were similar meetings in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Leicester, Liverpool, London and Norwich.

The idea was to consult a representative sample of about 1,100 simultaneously.

The highest support for nuclear plants was in Exeter (62 per cent), with opinion equally divided in both London and Edinburgh.

There was also a gender divide, with 52 per cent of men in favour, but only 33 per cent of women.

The Government's official line is that the 20-week consultation, closing on October 10, will help decide whether nuclear power should remain part of Britain's energy mix.

However, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor, Tony Blair, have championed the nuclear option as essential to avoid future energy shortages.

John Hutton, Business and Enterprise Secretary, said: "It is important that we know what the public thinks before we take this important decision."

But Neil Crumpton, of Friends of the Earth, said: "There are good options in terms of renewable energy, but these were not in the presentations and the delegates were not exposed to them."

Hartlepool, and the sites of the other 15 existing reactors in England and Wales, have already been pinpointed as the most likely locations for any new power stations.

A looming planning shake-up means Government officials - rather than an inquiry - will decide on any proposal, which would speed it up dramatically.