Nuclear power advocates believe Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng is willing to extend the life of the Hinkley Point B power station to help wean the UK off gas imports and prevent a decline faster than expected from the British fleet of atomic reactors.
Soaring gas prices and the war in Ukraine have already prompted the government to ask owners of coal-fired power stations to stay open longer, while ministers have also reconsidered their fierce opposition to fracking in light of the problems of energy supply.
The nuclear industry and its supporters have a growing feeling that Kwarteng could also be persuaded to support an extension of up to 18 months in the life of Hinkley Point B, which must stop generating electricity this summer.
Such a plan, which would dovetail with Boris Johnson’s support for new nuclear in the recent Energy Security Plan, would keep 1GW of electricity generation on the national grid in the short term, replacing the need for gas-fired generation for up to to 1.5 million households. .
Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger, whose Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency includes Hinkley, said he had spoken to Kwarteng about the possibility and was “definitely” open to it. “Kwasi is not stupid,” he said.
“He understands the stresses and strains we go through and that we have to look at everything we can. They are fully aware of what [Hinkley] Station B is capable of. She is old but she is healthy.
Hinkley owner EDF Energy is set to produce a safety case to extend the life of a power station which was connected to the grid in 1976 and whose closure was already postponed for seven years in 2012.
EDF should prove to the Nuclear Regulation Office (ONR) that the aging graphite pencils of the plant’s reactors could be inserted, even in the event of a large and unprecedented earthquake, to avoid a nuclear accident.
A nuclear industry source said there was a “six-week window” left, during which EDF could still make the case in time for the ONR to issue a verdict on the safety of the plans and postpone the end. scheduled power generation from Hinkley on July 15th.
Greg Hands, an assistant minister from Kwarteng’s department for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS), visited Hinkley last week. Engineers there reportedly told Hands that they expected the plant to close as planned.
But the nuclear industry source said that while engineers were naturally focused on the shutdown plans they had been working on for many months, senior EDF officials were likely more open to extending Hinkley’s life.
The ONR would ultimately decide whether such a plan could go ahead, but Kwarteng’s approval is crucial. Indeed, EDF would incur significant costs to compile a safety case for an extension and would have to be sure that the ministers would not block it.
EDF declined to say whether it planned to do so. BEIS said it had held no discussion of such a proposal. ” This [extending Hinkley] would save you from having to import a lump of gas,” the nuclear industry source said.
The Guardian also understands that Torness, near Dunbar, and Heysham 2 in Lancashire could go offline sooner than expected, based on regular assessments of the condition of their graphite rods.
Their retirement has already been brought forward, with EDF saying earlier this year that they would cease production in 2028, rather than 2030. In theory, each plant that operates for a year can replace more than a billion cubic meters of gas imports.
While nuclear power has traditionally been expensive, the exacerbated price of gas in recent months, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, means the £45 per megawatt hour that EDF makes from its nuclear contract is significantly below wholesale market prices electricity.
The Prospect and GMB unions have also called for extending the life of Britain’s nuclear fleet.
Pressure on Kwarteng to signal EDF that the government would support plans to keep Hinkley Point B open amid fears that the capacity of Britain’s nuclear fleet could shrink even faster than expected.
Based on current projections of retirement of reactors and construction of new ones, UK nuclear capacity will increase from 5.8 GW today to 4.4 GW in 2028, taking into account the construction of Hinkley Point C but also the end of life of Torness and Heysham.
However, the 2028 completion date for Hinkley Point C, which is already over budget and behind schedule, is being reviewed, with a forecast expected this summer.