Welcome lifetime extension for Torness, but nuclear future remains uncertain

EDF has announced today that their Torness nuclear power station on the east coast of Scotland is to have its life extended by at least seven years. It was due to close in 2023 and will now keep delivering baseload energy for two million homes in Scotland until 2030.

 

Torness plant manager Robert Gunn said EDF’s announcement was “fantastic news” for the wider Scottish economy as well as for the workforce at Torness, which he said played a vital role in the country’s energy production. 700 workers are employed at the plant in high quality, well paid jobs, vital to the local community as well. A point highlighted by the local MSP, Iain Gray.

 

The Scottish Government is opposed to new nuclear installations, but hasn’t opposed life extensions. Which is just as well. As Professor Paul Younger puts it:

“On average, more than a third (34%) of all the electricity used in Scotland comes from those two nuclear power stations (Torness and Hunterston). Their attribute is they are very low carbon and 24/7. They pump the electricity out steadily around the clock. As other things wax and wane, like the wind coming or not, it provides the bedrock. Without nuclear – which is where we are heading, this just delays the day – Scotland is going to have serious problems achieving its carbon targets and keeping its lights on.”

 

This is good news for the new Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, former Scottish Labour MP, Tom Greatrex. While welcoming the extension he focused on the future:

While lifetime extensions of our current nuclear fleet help in the medium term, as both government policy and commercial reality see more thermal plant announce closure dates over the next few years, it is on new nuclear and developing technologies, including potentially small modular reactors, that we need to focus. Alongside renewables, demand side response technology, energy efficiency and peaking capacity, the role for nuclear in the decades ahead is a vital part of our broader mix.”

 

That future is looking less rosy as the ongoing uncertainty over EDF’s Hinkley Point has cast doubt over the UK’s second planned new nuclear plant, Horizon’s Wylfa Newydd project, according to a report in the Sunday Telegraph. The Sunday Times has also reported that there is a get-out clause in the government’s contract with EDF, allowing the Treasury to back out of financial support if the troubled Flamanville nuclear plant is not up and running by 2020. EDF is believed to have delayed a final investment decision on Hinkley until next month at the earliest, amid growing concerns over the financing of the proposed nuclear plant.

 

Criticism of the cost of big nuclear power plants is not new. Here is Aberdeen University’s David Toke’s analysis of Hinkley. He makes the point that even the CBI, is raising concerns about this. He says: “Instead the government seems to be pinning its hopes on a nuclear programme happening at the end of a Chinese rainbow. Stand by for the crock of gold at Bradwell to be just as eye-watering.”

 

Germany is seeking to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2023 and this comparative study from the University of Sussex, does raise some interesting questions.

 

Tom Greatrex interestingly mentioned new smaller reactor designs, rather than the arguably over engineered Hinkley project. This is explained by Professor Martin Freer at Birmingham University. He argues: “Unfortunately, the rather blinkered focus of the government on delivering the Hinkley Point project without recognising what is coming in the near future is a significant point of weakness for UK nuclear energy policy. An approach that gave greater recognition to the potential of other designs could avoid future embarrassment, as well as saving money for the taxpayer and energy bill payer.”

 

So, for today we can welcome the lifetime extension at Torness, for the jobs and security of supply it brings. However, the future of nuclear power in the UK remains a controversial and uncertain issue.

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