EDF Energy is reviewing whether the closure of two of Britain’s five remaining nuclear power plants could be postponed beyond 2024, to help bolster domestic energy supplies in future winters.
The French-owned energy group said on Wednesday that given the “severity of the energy crisis”, it would review the case for “short” extensions at the Hartlepool and Heysham 1 nuclear power plants in the north of England, which between them have a generation capacity of more than 2.2 gigawatts and produce enough electricity to supply around 4mn homes.
Both stations are currently scheduled to close in March 2024 but analysts fear energy supplies will remain under pressure across Europe over the next couple of winters as governments move to reduce their dependence on Russian gas.
Nuclear industry experts have suggested extensions of 1-2 years might be feasible at the plants, although EDF did not provide any details on how long their closure could be postponed. It would have to make a safety case to Britain’s nuclear regulator for any extension, which would depend on the state of the reactors’ graphite cores.
Other nuclear power plants have been forced to close earlier than planned because cracks were found in their cores, although an EDF spokesman said recent inspections showed that the graphite at both Hartlepool and Heysham 1 remained intact.
The move comes as governments across Europe have been revisiting both the closure of existing nuclear plants and building fleets of new reactors to help alleviate the continent’s reliance on gas.
Germany is keeping two of its three nuclear plants, which had been due to close at the end of the year, on standby this winter in the event of an energy crunch. France, already a nuclear energy powerhouse, is among the European countries that are considering ambitious programmes to build new reactors.
The UK government was earlier this year criticised by unions and academics for allowing the Hinkley Point B nuclear power plant in Somerset to close ahead of the winter, despite fears that Britain could face a number of crunch points this winter when electricity supplies will be insufficient to meet demand.
The government has intervened to ensure that three coal-fired power stations, which were due to permanently close units this winter, will remain on standby in the event of shortages.
Britain’s nuclear power fleet is dwindling rapidly. The country started the decade with eight operational nuclear plants, with a total generating capacity of just over 9GW between them. Since then three plants have closed, leaving 5.9GW of nuclear capacity. By the end of 2028, only one of the existing fleet of nuclear power stations is expected to remain open, Sizewell B in Suffolk.
One new nuclear power station, the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, is currently under construction but has been hit by delays and cost overruns. It is not expected to start generating any electricity until June 2027. EDF is also hoping to build another new plant in Suffolk adjacent to Sizewell B.
The EDF review was not triggered by a request from the UK government but the company said in a report on Wednesday that “in the short-term . . . it is absolutely right that we look at how we can optimise the lifetimes of the remaining [fleet] to provide secure, 24/7, zero carbon electricity and help reduce the UK’s dependence on gas”.