The owner of one of Britain’s six nuclear power plants said it would not extend its life beyond the planned summer shutdown, although officials have raised concerns about the risks of blackouts in the following months.
French-owned EDF Energy sent a note to employees on Monday saying it would not delay the shutdown of the two reactors at Hinkley Point B in Somerset, which are due to close on July 8 and August 1.
Shutting down the plant will remove nearly gigawatts of electricity generation capacity from the UK system – enough to power 1.5 million homes – ahead of winter as the war in Ukraine is expected to significantly affect the electricity supply.
The government downplayed its fears of blackouts later this year after it emerged that officials had identified a “reasonable worst-case scenario” that could involve millions of homes forced to reduce their peak electricity consumption.
This modeling, first reported by The Times, included an option to expand Hinkley Point B, something that experts and politicians had been discussing for months. However, it is understood that the government has not formally asked EDF to keep the reactors open.
The government is scrambling to secure enough electricity to sustain handicaps during the winter as families grapple with a cost-of-living crunch caused by energy prices, which are expected to rise further in the fall.
Last week, Business Minister Kwasi Kwarting wrote to the national grid’s power grid operator, asking him to work with owners of coal-fired power plants that were due to close in September to extend their operating life. This was despite government pledges to phase out highly polluting fuels quickly.
Chris Philp, the culture secretary who does not oversee the energy industry, told Times Radio Monday morning that Kwarteng is considering whether Hinkley Point B can last beyond the “intended end of life.”
But later in the day, the EDF wrote to staff: “Although it is technically possible to expand operations [at the nuclear plant] The time for that and to make sure we are ready for winter operations for up to six months is now over.”
The memo, published by the Financial Times, added that the extension would include preparation for a detailed safety issue, which must be approved by the UK’s nuclear regulator.
Any decision to request an extension is up to EDF and the regulator, a government source said, adding that the government has secured sufficient electrical capacity even without extending coal operations or nuclear power plants.
However, industry sources familiar with the matter said it was highly likely that the EDF would request a written request from a minister before deciding to proceed with the arduous process of submitting a new safety case to the regulator, which is being managed remotely by the Regulatory Department in a strategy Company, Energy and Industry (BEIS).
“There is no technical reason for Hinkley B to not be able to continue operating if it can satisfy regulators. It would be a fundamental economic decision for EDF,” said Malcolm Grimstone, volunteer senior researcher at Imperial College London’s Center for Energy Policy and Technology.
Industry insiders expressed concern about the lack of time for the government to take action, with one saying, “They have left it to the end and we’re not sure it’s possible.”
“All options must be explored to prevent blackouts this winter,” said Sue Ferns, senior assistant secretary general for the Prospect Union, which represents engineers, including those in the nuclear industry.
“The government should urge nuclear power plant operators to urgently consider extending the life of reactors slated to be safely decommissioned in the coming months, including Hinkley Point B, which is due to close this summer.”
A spokesman for Boris Johnson said: “Neither the government nor the national grid expect any blackouts this winter.” Sources at BEIS also indicated that the possibility of a power outage was “highly unlikely”. EDF declined to comment.
A government spokesperson said: “Any extension of the operating schedules for nuclear power plants in the UK is a matter for the power plant operator, EDF, and the regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Office, on the basis of safety considerations.
“The government has no direct role in this process and has not submitted any such requests,” he added.