U.K. Waves Goodbye to Nuclear Plant in Midst of Energy Crunch
(Bloomberg) -- Electricite de France SA will switch off the last unit at its Hunterston B nuclear power plant in Scotland on Friday, further crimping supplies in the middle of an energy crunch.
Workers will stand outside and watch the last steam being released from the turbines at around noon. While the decision to close the 46-year-old station due to long-running safety issues was made in 2020, it comes at a difficult time for the market -- and with the coldest months still to come.
Britain can usually rely on electricity imports from France, but extended outages at nuclear plants there are limiting supplies. In addition, Germany shut half of its nuclear fleet last month ahead of a total phaseout by the end of this year. Along with a gas crunch, that’s helped send power prices to record highs.
Low-carbon power from Britain’s aging nuclear fleet is seen as key to meeting net-zero targets by 2050, and the closure of 4 gigawatts of capacity by 2024 leaves a gap that needs to be filled without boosting emissions. EDF’s new Hinkley Point C nuclear station is due to start generating in 2026 and it’s waiting to hear from the government about funding for its Sizewell C project.
In the meantime, expensive gas plants will need to step in to supply power when there’s not enough wind to generate renewable electricity. High gas prices have pushed up power-production costs and exposed the risk of relying on mostly-imported fossil fuels.
As “the current energy crisis demonstrates, without nuclear the cost of the electricity we rely on is higher, causes pollution and leaves us reliant on burning imported fossil fuels,” said Tom Greatrex, chief executive officer of the Nuclear Industry Association. “That’s why we need new nuclear.”
The Hunterston B reactors were only intended to run for 25 years. But the extended lifespan took its toll with the discovery of cracks in the graphite core of the reactors, and proving that the units were safe to run became too difficult. The defueling phase for Hunterston B will take about three years.
“We’re required to demonstrate that we can withstand a severe and significant seismic event, and as the plant aged that was becoming more difficult,” said station director, Paul Forrest who will oversee the defueling from Monday.
The station’s other unit was taken off line in November. The two reactors provided about 300 terawatt-hours of low-carbon electricity over their lifetimes, enough to power every home in Scotland for 31 years.
For workers like maintenance engineer Dougie Graham, who started as a 16-year-old apprentice at the station 25 years go, there’s mixed emotions.
“I’ve grown up on the station,” he said in an interview. “I think there’s going to be a lot of pride in what we’ve achieved and there will obviously be a wee bit of sadness because we’re not continuing to generate.”
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