Nuclear power operator EDF is to extend the operational lives of four of its UK nuclear power stations. Heysham 1 and Hartlepool will continue to operate until 2024, while Heysham 2 and Torness will run until at least 2030.
The reasons for the extension are threefold. First, inspection of the plants suggests that initial life expectancy was over-cautious, and that the plants can be safely operated for years to come. Against this, however, are concerns about the profitability of nuclear power together with growing concerns about Britain’s lack of generating capacity.
EDF profits fell by nearly 70 percent in 2015. In this climate, investment in new nuclear plants such as the one proposed at Hinkley Point is hard to justify. In an interview with the BBC Today programme, energy expert Paul Dorfman of the UCL Energy Institute said:
“Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, it may just not happen. Chris Bakken, the man charged by EDF to construct Hinkley Point, has quit to spend more time with his family, EDF shares have crashed to half their value a year ago; the budget for Hinkley alone is bigger than EDF’s entire market value… Areva – EDF’s construction arm – has been bankrupted by the huge costs and time overruns for the same brand of reactor they want to build at Hinkley, so it seems there’s a good chance that it simply may not happen.”
In this economic climate, continuing to operate aging plants, whose investment has already been paid off, is a guarantee of profits… provided, of course, that nothing goes wrong.
The UK government appears to have arrived at a similar conclusion in relation to energy supply. Whereas new nuclear may never happen and (as we have reported before) sufficient new gas power may be beyond us, the aging fleet of nuclear plants already exist. So long as they can continue to operate safely, it makes sense to keep them running.
The problem, of course, is that nobody knows what “safe” means in relation to aging nuclear power plants. A Report commissioned by Greenpeace raises a list of concerns around aging components and, especially, the result of fatigue and embrittlement of the pressure vessel and its containment. They also raise concern about the potential for a failure of the instrumentation used to monitor the reactor.
While failure is considered unlikely, a broader concern is that older nuclear plant designs lack many of the safety features of new designs. Thus, in the event of an accident, the potential for radioactive material to escape into the environment is much greater when old plant continues to be used than where entirely new plant is built.