ICAN Scottish Partner

Latest Events

Donate to SCND

Amount to donate:
£  GBP  




ScrapTrident


UK's "Knackered" Nuclear Power Stations

Britain now has 10 operating nuclear power stations, stretching from Torness on the Firth of Forth to Dungeness on the south Kent coast. Each has two reactors, and Ministers boast that they supply about one-fifth of the power that keeps the lights on.

The reality, as an Independent on Sunday investigation shows is very different. The majority of the power stations are in dire trouble, and their failure is leading to the most acute concern in years that the country may run short of electricity this winter.

Two of the 10 have been idle for almost a year, with both reactors out of action due to corrosion. Another two have had one of their reactors closed down for months. And yet another two are having to run both their reactors at less than three-quarters of their normal power for safety reasons.

And even that is not the end of it. Of the four that are still in good working condition, one is due to shut down permanently in two years' time, a second is partially closed for routine maintenance, and a third is facing safety questions following the discovery of flaws in similar reactors in Japan.

Britain now has 10 operating nuclear power stations, stretching from Torness on the Firth of Forth to Dungeness on the south Kent coast. Each has two reactors, and Ministers boast that they supply about one-fifth of the power that keeps the lights on.

The reality, as an Independent on Sunday investigation shows is very different. The majority of the power stations are in dire trouble, and their failure is leading to the most acute concern in years that the country may run short of electricity this winter.

Two of the 10 have been idle for almost a year, with both reactors out of action due to corrosion. Another two have had one of their reactors closed down for months. And yet another two are having to run both their reactors at less than three-quarters of their normal power for safety reasons.

And even that is not the end of it. Of the four that are still in good working condition, one is due to shut down permanently in two years' time, a second is partially closed for routine maintenance, and a third is facing safety questions following the discovery of flaws in similar reactors in Japan.

The meltdown of Britain's nuclear capacity is largely responsible for an alarming tightening of electricity supplies that is forecast to start at the beginning of November, as demand rises sharply for the winter, and to continue until at least the end of the month.

An independent nuclear analyst, John Large, said  "It's all in a pretty sad state. The reactors are starting to break up; they are becoming knackered. There comes a point when you simply have to turn the things off.

"We have been lucky for two years with mild winters, but if we have a cold snap then I can see the lights blinking off."

The National Grid insists there should be enough power even if there is a harsh winter, though it admits to "a lot of uncertainty" in its projections. But independent analysts warn of a real danger of shortages, saying the nuclear crisis is largely to blame.

Ed Mayo, the chief executive of Consumer Focus – the new official consumer body, which started work last week – said that supplies would be "tighter over the coming period than they have ever been".

David Hunter, an analyst with the independent energy consultants McKinnon & Clarke, which advises companies on how to minimise their energy costs, added: "Not very much has to go wrong to turn the situation towards brownouts and blackouts."

He pointed out that Britain has a maximum of 70-75 gigawatts (gW) of electricity available from its own sources. Last week, he added, 18gW of that was out of action – partly because of the nuclear crisis (which he called "very serious"), partly because of lesser problems with coal- and oil-fired plants, and partly through routine maintenance, bringing the total down to 52-57gW. Yet in a cold snap demand could rise to 60-62gW.

In the meantime, scarcity was joining with increased fuel costs to drive up prices; the wholesale cost of electricity for November was treble what it had been at the start of the year, which, said Mr Hunter, "gives some idea of the panic over availability". Eventually, consumers would suffer through higher bills.

Jeremy Nicholson, director of the Energy Intensive Users Group, said: "In ordinary circumstances nuclear would be running flat out during the winter. That's the whole point of it – to supply that base load."

Instead, the shutdowns and reduced power were causing "anxiety", he added. "We are all crossing our fingers, but I can't say we are too optimistic."

The two UK power stations that are completely out of action are Hartlepool in the North-east and Heysham One in the North-west. Both have been closed for almost a year because wire used to secure caps that allow access to boilers has become corroded, and may have to be cut out of concrete and replaced.

One of the reactors at the Dungeness B power station has been shut since the end of March because of defects in welds. The second closed for routine maintenance in July. British Energy claims that both will be back in operation by the end of December, but independent experts are sceptical.

Yet another reactor, at the Oldbury power station on the Severn, has been closed since July, with almost 100 dampers installed against the risk of fire. The entire power station is due to close, at the end of its working life, in December.

Both reactors at nearby Hinkley Point B and at Hunterston B on the west coast of Scotland are running at 70 per cent power, at inspectors' insistence, after developing cracks in the graphite core of their reactors. In the worst-case scenario, the cracked graphite bricks could break up and distort the nuclear core, trapping the highly radioactive fuel, which could overheat and melt.

There's more. Wylfa, on Anglesey, one of the minority of power stations where both reactors are operating satisfactorily, is due to close down permanently in December 2010. And cracks have been discovered in the steam generator at Sizewell B, Britain's most modern nuclear power station, resulting in the replacement of a reactor pressure-vessel head.

Sizewell B also faces questions over its future performance following the discovery of cracks in welds in four similar reactors in Japan. Experts say that it is now of an age at which it is likely to require a major overhaul that could see it out of action for six months, further crippling the contribution nuclear power is supposed to make to keeping the lights on.