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EDF to close UK nuclear power station two years early due to cracks in reactor

01 September 2020

EDF Energy announced on August 27 that the Hunterston B nuclear power station will be closed down in 2021, two years earlier than intended. The nuclear power station in Ayrshire, Scotland, has been closed since 2018 when 350 cracks were found in the graphite bricks that make up the reactor's core. EDF has spent around £200m trying to fix the reactor since it went offline in 2018.

Image - Nugent
Image - Nugent

Hunterston B nuclear power station went offline in 2018 after the 350 cracks were discovered. The number of cracks exceeded the operational limit approved by the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR). This led to a two-year inspection and investment programme to prove that the station could respond safely to a range of earthquake scenarios, including a once-in-10,000-year seismic event. EDF had spent around £200m on this process in the hopes that Hunterston B would continue to be operational until at least 2023.  

On August 26, the ONR announced that it was satisfied that the reactor could operate safely despite the cracks and agreed a new limit of 700 cracks. EDF then announced on August 27 that it had received approval to start generating low carbon power again from reactor 3 for six months, however it said in a statement that due to the power station’s age, Hunterston B would move into the defuelling phase no later than January 7, 2022.

A further inspection of the cracks will be conducted in Spring 2021 before EDF seeks regulatory approval for a final 6 months of operation. Hunterston B first began generating electricity in 1976.

Matt Sykes, Managing Director for EDF’s Generation business, said: “Hunterston B has quietly delivered a major contribution to the UK for more than 40 years. It has far exceeded its original remit and, over its lifetime, gone on to safely produce enough low carbon energy to power the whole of Scotland for 8 years.

“We didn’t know back in the 1960s, when these plants were designed, just how important low carbon energy would become. We owe all those that designed, built, commissioned and still operate the station a huge debt of gratitude. Our focus is on continuing to safely deliver the last period of power generation and then transition the station into decommissioning.”

Once Hunterston B stops generating power, EDF will take on the next task of defuelling the station, the first stage of the nuclear decommissioning process. EDF said that preparations for defuelling have been underway for a long time and, once started, the process is expected to take a few years to complete. Defuelling will involve continued use of EDF’s teams, and specialist supply chain companies, thereby helping sustain an important source of local jobs in Ayrshire and the surrounding economy.

Simone Rossi, EDF’s UK CEO, said: “I am extremely proud of all those who have run Hunterston B for more than 40 years. Today’s announcement underlines the urgent need for investment in new, low carbon nuclear power to help Britain achieve net zero and secure the future for its nuclear industry, supply chain and workers.”

According to the BBC, there will be 125 job losses once power generation ends at the site. There are currently around 500 people employed at Hunterston B and some will be kept on for the defueling process, which is expected to start in 2025, EDF said.

Donald Urquhart, ONR Deputy Chief Inspector, said: “This has been a detailed and complex assessment in which my team of specialist inspectors has rigorously assessed and scrutinised the safety case and underpinning evidence provided by EDF NGL. This work has taken more than two years, and I am grateful to my team for the diligent and professional manner in which this has been done.

“I am satisfied that the detailed safety justification provided by the licensee is sufficient to demonstrate that Reactor 3 can operate safely for this period of operation. We applied stringent national and international standards when making our decision, have scrutinised the nature of the cracking observed in Reactor 3 and are satisfied that it will not prevent the reactor from operating safely or impede its ability to be shutdown if required during this period of operation.

“As the independent nuclear regulator, our sole priority is the safety of site workers, local residents and the wider public who rely on ONR to regulate such safety matters. We will only allow nuclear facilities to operate if we are satisfied that they are safe to do so.”

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