British Energy begins extending engineered life-spans for troubled reactors – Bellona in opposition

Publish date: December 11, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

British Energy has said that it will extend the service lives of Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B nuclear power stations by five years to 2016, UK’ Press Association reported, showing Britain is jumping on the dangerous bandwagon pioneered by Russia to get more out of aging nuclear facilities in the name of CO2 reductions.

Hinkley Point B in Southwest England’s Somerset County has a capacity of 1220 MWe, and Hunterson B in Ayrshire Scotland operates at 1190. The Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) power stations both host two reactors, share essentially the same design and began operation 30 years ago in 1976.

The two reactors at both sites that will be getting life span extensions are currently operating at 60 percent their capacity. The performance issue were brought about by problems related to cracking of tubes in boilers, which in AGRs are integrated within a concrete reactor containment structure, World Nuclear News reported.

In addition, aging effects on the core restraint structures at Hinkley Point B have caused British Energy to conduct extra analyses.

The upgrades to extend their life spans by five years will cost £90 million ($184 million) in excess of British Energy current investments programmes for the sites.

British Energy said in a release that it expected to spend £190-210 million ($390-430 million) on "plant projects, major repairs and strategic spares" for its fleet, excluding the £90 million on Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B.

Further life-span extensions on the boards

Further, British Energy said it will conduct separate studies on whether to extend the operational lives of its other six nuclear plants "in due course” it said.

British Energy also said the decision to extend the life-spans at Hinkley Point B and Hunterston Point B was an important move toward supporting the UK’s climate change goals and the reduction of CO2 emissions. Economic commentators supported the supposed cost effectiveness of running the reactors beyond their intended closure dates.

"If they can get these to 40 years, it’s quite supportive for the rest of the fleet," Iain Turner, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.

"The stations are all solid bits of engineering. They will probably end up lasting a long time."

However, the British Energy chief executive, Bill Coley, said those who thought the life extensions might rule out the need for a generation of new reactors were mistaken.

"It doesn’t obviate the need for new capacity, but it makes the timing more manageable," he told Reuters.

British Energy runs eight UK reactors, generating about one-sixth of the nation’s electricity.

"We see this plan not just as supporting this life extension but also paving the way for further life extensions post-2016," said analysts at Deutsche Bank. "Their life extension is encouraging for the other plant too."

Coley said the life extensions would prevent the emission of 37 million tons of CO2, which would have otherwise been generated by power plants filling the gap – equivalent to about half the annual emissions of a country like Portugal.

CO2 argument ‘green’ smokescreen for ailing industry
But emissions concerns could be little more than a smoke screen for the UK’s nuclear power industry to hide behind while propagating the green cause.

Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of UK electricity, with most of that coming from British Energy’s AGR fleet. Current plans would see only one operational nuclear power plant in the country by 2023, so British Energy is keen to replace the aging and increasingly unreliable AGRs with new internationally standardised units.

However, any moves to invest in new nuclear power plants must wait until the government issues a policy statement as a result of its recent public consultation. The UK government will decide next month as a result of this consultation whether to give the controversial go-ahead to a new generation of reactors after years of limbo in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Bellona strongly disagrees with British Energy’s plans
It is Bellona’s position that the life extension of the reactors – with the possibility of more extensions to come – is an ill conceived notion that ignores Britain’s vast potential for alternative and renewable energy sources to replace its aging nuclear plants. It is also using the CO2 reduction issue as false justification for keeping nuclear power alive.

“It’s like trying to cure the plague with cholera,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s nuclear physicist.

Especially surprising, noted Bøhmer, is that the UK has been a big conversational player in pursuing alternative and renewable energy sources, especially in the wake of the British Government commissioned Stern Report of 2006.

The report, which rattled governments around the world assessed the economic impact of global climate change and projected it would be worse than that of World War II.

“The UK has had some very positive things to contribute to the renewable energy discussion – they have enormous potential for offshore winds parks, and there is a huge potential there for carbon capture and storage technology,” he said.

Bøhmer further noted that extending the life- spans of the reactors will further embroil Britain in its currently crucial search for scarce nuclear waste storage.

“While they are spending money on extending the life spans of these reactors, they aren’t researching ways to store their increasing nuclear waste,” he said.

“At present, they have no good plan for storing the additional waste that will come of keeping these plants operating.”

Plant capacities and foreign partners
Ayrshire-based Hunterston B and Hinkley Point B, near Bridgwater, Somerset, are both capable of supplying power to more than one million homes.

British Energy is also working with companies from around the world in a bid to develop plans for new-build nuclear projects should such expansion be permitted by the Government.

Coley said the group was still in second-round talks with more than 10 companies that are interested in playing a part in any new UK nuclear plants, and no party had been eliminated yet.

"Interest and enthusiasm is even higher now than when we began the whole process," he added.

Both Hinkley Point B and Hunterston Point B were impacted by technical problems last year, resulting in the stations operating at their present 60 percent load. Further work will be undertaken during planned outages over the next year aimed at delivering 70 percent load, the press association reported.

At such a level, British Energy said it believed it would be economically viable to extend the lives of the two stations.