The UK’s request to postpone closure comes too late, as officials contemplate emergency steps to avoid blackouts caused by the Ukraine conflict.EDF Energy has said it would not keep one of Britain’s six remaining nuclear power stations operating through the middle of the year, a setback for the government’s ambitions to boost domestic energy supply this winter and avert blackouts if Russia cuts off gas to Europe.
The Government’s Ambitions To Boost Domestic Energy
In a statement to employees on Monday, the French-owned energy company said it will not postpone the closing of Hinkley Point B in Somerset beyond the end of July.
One possibility ministers were considering as part of their contingency planning for probable energy shortages later this year was to extend the plant’s life.
If Moscow stopped delivering gas to western Europe during the winter months, Whitehall’s worst-case scenario would result in 6 million households experiencing partial blackouts.
Last week, Kwasi Kwarteng, National Grid’s business secretary, wrote to the FTSE 100 corporation, encouraging it to “substantially” expand the amount of electricity-generating capacity available throughout the winter, with a concentration on non-gas fuelled stations.
Following the revelation about impending power cutbacks, Chris Philp, the technology minister, told on Monday, “I think he’s investigating whether Hinkley B, the enormous nuclear power station, may go beyond its intended end of life as well.”
Kwarteng has also requested the operators of three coal-fired power plants, including EDF, to postpone their closures, he said. All but one of them were scheduled to be decommissioned by the end of September as part of the UK’s carbon-reduction strategy.
“That’s a logical precautionary step, given that gas supply from Russia and Ukraine has been severely delayed for obvious reasons, and we do, of course, need a lot of gas to generate power,” Philp added.
Gas-fired power plants continue to be the single largest source of electricity generation in the UK, accounting for over 40% of total generation.
However, EDF cautioned that the request had come too late, dealing a partial blow to the government. “While it is theoretically possible to prolong operations [at Hinkley Point B]for up to six months, the time needed to do so and be certain that we would be ready for winter operations has already passed.”
According to the email, an extension would include putting up a comprehensive safety case that would have to be authorized by the UK’s nuclear regulator, as well as examinations of the graphite cores of Hinkley’s reactors.
The 46-year-old plant’s retirement will reduce the UK’s nuclear producing capacity by 1 gigawatt, bringing it to 5.9GW.
Nuclear power output will drop to 3.65GW by March 2024 as a result of plans to down two additional aging facilities in Hartlepool and Heysham, despite unions and backbench MPs pressing the government to keep them running longer in the case of a lengthy conflict in Ukraine.
Although the UK relies on Russia for less than 4% of its gas, it is significantly reliant on supplies from Norway as well as imports via pipelines from the Netherlands and Belgium during the winter.
Government officials fear that if Moscow stops exporting to the rest of Europe, which relies on Russia for 40% of its gas, these imports may plummet or disappear entirely.
Ministers have initiated “Project Yarrow,” a stress test of an existing power and gas “national emergency plan” that was initially drafted in November 2019. During a “supply emergency,” that paper lays out the procedure for assuring “fair rationing” of power.
Rationing would only happen in the “worst-case situation,” according to the administration. “As a responsible administration, it is right that we plan for every single extreme possibility, however rare,” one official said.
However, energy executives are afraid that the government has left it too late to keep some of the last remaining coal-fired power plants operating this winter, as Russian coal imports will be prohibited by the end of the year.
Ministers are also in talks with Centrica to reopen Rough, the UK’s largest gas storage facility, which was essentially shut down in 2017. On Monday, the firm indicated it might reopen for storage, but that it would need to apply for a new license.