EDF Energy has ruled out keeping one of Britain’s six remaining nuclear power plants open beyond the middle of the year in a blow to government efforts to bolster domestic energy supplies this winter and avoid the possibility of blackouts if Russia cuts off gas to Europe.
The French-owned energy group told staff in a memo on Monday that it would not delay the shutdown of Hinkley Point B in Somerset beyond its scheduled closure date of the end of July.
Extending the life of the plant was one option ministers were exploring as part of contingency planning for potential energy shortages later this year. Whitehall’s worst-case scenario would leave 6mn homes facing partial blackouts if Moscow stops sending gas to western Europe in the colder months.
Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, wrote to National Grid last week urging the FTSE 100 company to “significantly” increase the amount of electricity-generating capacity available over the winter, with a particular focus on non-gas fired stations.
“I think he’s considering whether Hinkley B, the large nuclear power station, might continue beyond its planned end of life as well,” Chris Philp, technology minister, told Times Radio on Monday following the report about possible power cuts by the Times.
He added that Kwarteng had also asked the operators of three coal-fired power stations, including EDF, to delay their closure. All but one of those was due to be mothballed by the end of September as part of the UK’s plan to reduce carbon emissions.
“That’s a sensible precautionary measure, given that gas supply coming out of Russia, and Ukraine is for obvious reasons, so heavily disrupted and we do, of course, use quite a lot of gas to generate electricity,” Philp said. Gas-fired plants are still the single biggest source of electricity generation in Britain, accounting for about 40 per cent of the total mix.
But in a partial blow to the government, EDF warned in the memo, seen by the Financial Times, that the request had come too late. “Although it is technically feasible to extend operations [at Hinkley Point B] for up to six months, the time required to do this and to be confident we would be ready for winter operating has now run out.”
An extension would involve compiling a detailed safety case that would have to be approved by the UK’s nuclear regulator and inspections of the graphite cores of Hinkley’s reactors, the memo added.
The retirement of the 46-year-old plant will cut the UK’s nuclear generating capacity by 1 gigawatt to 5.9GW of nuclear capacity. Nuclear output will fall to just 3.65GW by March 2024 under plans to shut down two more ageing plants at Hartlepool and Heysham, with unions and backbench MPs urging the government to consider keeping them open longer in the event of a protracted war in Ukraine.
Although the UK is directly dependent on Russia for less than 4 per cent of its gas supply, it is heavily reliant during the winter on supplies from Norway as well as imports via pipelines from the Netherlands and Belgium.
Government officials fear these imports could drop dramatically or dry up completely in the event that Moscow ceases exports to the rest of Europe, which relies on Russia for 40 per cent of its gas.
Ministers have launched an exercise — dubbed “Project Yarrow” — to stress test an existing electricity and gas “national emergency plan”, first drawn up in November 2019. That document sets out the process for ensuring “fair rationing” of electricity during a “supply emergency”.
The government has insisted that rationing would only occur in a “worst-case scenario”. One official said: “As a responsible government it is right that we plan for every single extreme scenario, however unlikely.”
But energy bosses are concerned that the government has left it too late to keep open some of the last remaining coal-fired power plants this winter that rely on Russian coal imports, which will be banned by the end of the year.
Ministers have also been in discussions with Centrica to resurrect Rough, Britain’s biggest gas storage site, which was effectively closed in 2017. The company said on Monday it could potentially reopen for storage but would need to apply for a new licence.