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Life of UK nuclear power plants to be extended


Engineer operating controls at Heysham 1 nuclear power plant Photo: EDF
Heysham 1 is one of five nuclear power plants currently generating electricity in the UK

Photo: EDF

EDF Energy, which manages the UK’s fleet of nuclear power stations, is planning to invest a further £1.3bn in order to maintain output at current levels until at least 2026, and hopefully beyond. Meanwhile, the UK and US governments are looking to establish domestic supplies of the high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel required to power next-generation nuclear reactors in a bid to reduce Russia’s market domination.

Of the UK’s fleet of eight nuclear power stations, five are currently generating electricity – Sizewell B, Torness, Heysham 2, Heysham 1 and Hartlepool – while Hunterston B, Hinkley Point B and Dungeness B are defuelling as part of the first stage of decommissioning.


In its latest fleet update, EDF says it is to invest a further £1.3bn in the five generating nuclear power stations over 2024–2026, taking the total invested in the fleet to nearly £9bn since 2009, when it acquired operator British Energy. Nuclear meets about 13% of the UK’s power demand, although nuclear output in 2023 was 37.3 TWh, 15% lower than 2022 due to station closures and statutory outages, according to EDF.


The improved outlook has been driven by life extensions announced for Heysham 1 and Hartlepool (combined 2.2 GW capacity) in March 2023, which will see them generating for a further two years to a current forecast of March 2026. Heysham 2 and Torness power stations (2.4 GW) are currently due to generate until March 2028.


The ambition is to further extend the lives of the four generating AGR stations, subject to inspections and regulatory approvals; a decision will be taken by the end of 2024, reports EDF.


Dr Mark Hartley, Managing Director of EDF’s Nuclear Operations business, says: ‘EDF has built a strong track record of safely operating the UK’s existing nuclear fleet, delivering over 35% more clean power than initially forecast. Looking ahead, our aim is to maintain output from the four AGR stations for as long as possible and extend Sizewell B by a further 20 years, out to 2055. Maximising output also helps preserve the critical nuclear skills and capabilities that will be valuable for future nuclear projects.’


EDF is also a partner in the Hinkley Point C power plant currently under construction in Somerset. The 3.2 GW facility is expected to supply 7% of the UK’s electricity. The dome for Hinkley Point C’s first reactor building was lifted into place last month, allowing the first nuclear reactor to be installed this year.  


Commenting on EDF’s latest investment announcement, Jess Ralston, analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), says: ‘Experts including the Climate Change Committee are clear that the UK will need some new nuclear on top of the wind and solar power which will make up the backbone of our future electricity system… Prolonging the life of the existing fleet may plug a gap while the government sorts out the funding model and huge infrastructure projects [like Hinkley Point C] actually get underway, but it’s not a permanent solution. The gas crisis has highlighted that we can’t afford to depend on gas for power and that we need to reduce our reliance on it to achieve the government’s stated aim of energy independence. Renewables are cheaper and quicker to build than nuclear plants, so offer a quicker route to energy independence.’


Meanwhile, the UK government is understood to be planning to ease planning regulations to permit the construction of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) in a bid to potentially quadruple the country’s nuclear capacity over the next 25 years. The government has outlined a roadmap to achieve 24 GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 – a quarter of the UK’s electricity needs.

 Hinkley Point C construction

Measuring 47 metres in diameter, the 245-tonne steel dome placed on top of the Hinkley Point C reactor building is wider than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral

Photo: EDF


Developing domestic nuclear fuel markets

In addition, the UK government claims it is the first in Europe to launch a high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) programme to support domestic production of the fuel required to power the UK’s next-generation nuclear reactors. It is to invest some £300mn in a move that it says ‘will end Russia’s reign as the only commercial producer of HALEU’.


An additional £10mn will also be provided to develop the skills and sites to produce other advanced nuclear fuels in the UK, ‘helping to secure long-term domestic nuclear fuel supply and support international allies’.


The US, too, is looking to establish a reliable domestic supply of HALEU, with the Department of Energy recently issuing a request for proposals (RFP) for the development of uranium enrichment services in order to spur the deployment of advanced reactors in the country and help reach President Biden’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 while increasing energy security.


Together, the US, Canada, France, Japan and the UK have announced collective plans to mobilise $4.2bn in government-led spending to develop safe and secure nuclear energy supply chains.


In less positive news, NuScale has become the second major US nuclear reactor company to cut jobs in recent months, according to Huffington Post. It reports that almost exactly a year after becoming the first of a new generation of nuclear energy start-ups to win US regulatory approval of its reactor design, mounting costs and the cancellation of its first power plant have led the Oregon-based company to lay off nearly a third of its workforce. In October last year Maryland-based X-energy, which was working with the federal government to develop a next-generation reactor using gas instead of water for cooling, cut part of its workforce and scrapped plans to go public, citing ‘challenging market conditions’ as contributing to the decision.