EDF exploring keeping UK nuclear power plants open for longer to boost energy supplies

The entrance to Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station
The entrance to Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station

EDF is exploring keeping two of its UK nuclear power stations open for longer than planned amid growing concern over energy shortages.

The French state-owned company said it will review its current plans to close Hartlepool and Heysham 1 in March 2024 “with an ambition to generate longer if possible”.

The UK’s nuclear fleet, owned by EDF and minority partner Centrica, currently supplies about 16pc of Britain’s power annually. However all but one of the stations, Sizewell B in Suffolk, are set to retire by the end of the decade, with only one new plant being built.

The closures will unfold just as demand for clean electricity rises due to a boom in electric cars, while stable sources of power are needed to balance out intermittent renewables.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has triggered a far greater focus on energy security. Gas shortages triggered by cuts to Russian supplies to Europe have driven up household and business energy bills and triggered concerns over blackouts this winter.

Fears have ratcheted up this week after suspected sabotage on the two Nord Stream pipelines built to bring gas from Russia to Europe. Neither was operating but the leaks scupper any hopes of Nord Stream 1 coming back into service, and raise the prospect of threats to other pipelines.

The cause of the damage to the pipelines is not yet known, but it comes amid an escalating energy war between Russia and Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, on Tuesday blamed Russia for a “terrorist attack” against the EU. Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, and several European governments have attributed the leaks to sabotage. Gas prices surged more than 10pc on Wednesday.

Outages among EDF’s nuclear fleet in France have added to the pressure on European energy markets. Extending nuclear plants will not help the UK in the immediate crisis, but could secure supplies in the longer term.

In May, the parliamentary public accounts committee, chaired by Dame Meg Hillier, warned that the closure of the UK’s nuclear power stations would lead to a “major cut in generation capacity” and urged EDF and the Government to check whether stations could stay open for longer than planned.

Hartlepool station, on the River Tees, and Heysham 1 station, near Lancaster, can generate enough electricity for around 3.6m homes, with capacity of about 2GW.

The plants have been generating since 1983, and any extension is likely to be limited to a few years. Whether they can do so will depend on the condition of the reactor’s graphite core, although recent inspections are believed to have been encouraging.

Separately, EDF has previously said it is looking at plans to extend the life of Sizewell B by 20 years to 2055.

“Our priority in the next few years is to deliver as much output as we safely can from the existing fleet, to support security of supply and help preserve the UK’s nuclear skills,” said Matt Sykes, managing director of EDF’s generation business.

The UK’s current nuclear fleet is now down to five stations which are generating and three which are being defuelled as they close down, including Hinkley Point B in Somerset which closed in July after 46 years.

EDF is building a new station, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, although that has been delayed and is now not set to open until June 2027 - a year and a half later than original expectations.

It is still in talks with the Government about funding for a second new station, Sizewell C, in Suffolk. It comes as the French state is in the process of taking over the 16pc of EDF it does not already own, giving it greater control of the company as it tries to bring down electricity prices.

In the UK, electricity generators including EDF are also in talks with ministers over selling more of their power at lower prices under fixed-price contracts with the Government, to try and bring prices down.

There are concerns that non gas-fired power generators are making large profits because electricity prices are linked to high gas prices but they do not need to buy gas for their stations.

Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association trade group, welcomed EDF’s plans on Heysham and Hartlepool. He said: “Getting the most out of our existing nuclear stations is vital to ensure Britain has a secure supply of power going forward.”