By Paul Dorfman
As more reactors face closure, governments in Europe may prefer renewable energy to replace nuclear power.
LONDON, 25 November, 2020 – News that two more reactors in the United Kingdom are to shut down on safety grounds earlier than planned has capped a depressing month for nuclear power in Europe.
The news came after weeks of unfounded speculation, based on “leaks”, that the British government was about to take a stake in a giant new French-designed nuclear power station planned at Sizewell in Suffolk on the east coast of England as part of a “Green New Deal.” Taxpayers’ backing would have enabled the heavily-indebted French company EDF to finance the project.
In the event Boris Johnson, the prime minister, in his 10-point “green” plan for the UK, boosted a far more speculative alternative scheme from a Rolls-Royce consortium which was helping to pay for research and development into a full-blown proposal to construct 16 small modular reactors (SMRs).
He failed to mention the Sizewell scheme at all, and instead of singing the praises of nuclear power extolled the virtues of offshore wind power, in which the UK is currently the world leader.
Johnson hopes that offshore wind will produce enough electricity to power every home in Britain, leaving little room for a nuclear industry. He has referred to the UK as “becoming the Saudi Arabia of wind power.”
Meanwhile across the English Channel in Belgium the Electrabel company – the Belgian subsidiary of French utility Engie – has cancelled any further planned investment in its seven-strong nuclear reactor fleet because of the government’s intention to phase out nuclear power by 2025.
A serious safety flaw has emerged in this design, involving hundreds of cracks in the graphite, causing doubts over whether the reactors could be turned off quickly in an emergency.
After a long stand-off with the UK’s nuclear safety watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, EDF decided earlier this year to prematurely close two of the worst affected reactors – both in a station known as Hunterston B in Scotland. Now, for the same reason, two further reactors at Hinkley Point B in Somerset will also close. All four reactors will be defuelled in 2022.
Currently six of these 12 AGR reactors are turned off – out of service for maintenance or safety checks. Two of them, at Dungeness B on the south-east coast of England, have been undergoing repairs since 2018 – this time because of corrosion of vital pipework – although cracks in the graphite blocks are also a safety issue here too.