Closure of EDF’s Ayrshire plant, which has operated on west coast of Scotland since 1976, leaves UK with just seven operational nuclear stations
Hunterston B nuclear power station in Ayrshire is to shut down for good today, after almost half a century of generating low carbon electricity on Scotland’s west coast, operator EDF Energy has announced.
The 1.2GW capacity power station first began operating in 1976, and although it was originally expected to operate for 25 years, EDF was able to extend the plant’s lifespan a number of times.
However, safety concerns arose in recent years after cracks were found in the graphite bricks surrounding the reactor core, prompting EDF Energy to bring forward the site’s latest decommissioning date of 2023 by a year.
As a result, the first of the plant’s two reactors was taken offline in November 2021, and the final reactor is to be shutdown at midday on Friday, EDF said, bringing to an end 46 years of electricity generation at Hunterston B, which is situated west of Glasgow.
Station director Paul Forrest said the contribution of Hunterston B to the UK “cannot be underestimated”.
“As well as providing stable, well paid employment for thousands of people in the North Ayrshire are, it has provided almost 300TWh of zero carbon electricity, enough to power every home in Scotland for 31 years,” he said.
EDF said it had been consulting with staff affected by the closure, the majority of which have secured roles in defueling the power plant, which involves removing nuclear fuel from the reactors for transportation by rail to be stored at Sellafield in Cumbria. Some affected staff have also been moved to other EDF sites or opted to retire, according to the firm.
“We don’t just switch off the power station, close the gates and walk away,” Forrest explained. “It will take time to defuel and decommission the site and we will continue to need skilled people to do this.”
The decision to permanently close Hunterston B leaves just one nuclear power plant still operating in Scotland, and only seven currently operating throughout the whole of the UK, all of which are scheduled to permanently close by 2035.
With the UK targeting a net zero power grid by the same date, it leaves policymakers with a challenge to ramp up replacement low carbon electricity capacity to deliver on climate goals and meet the anticipated growth in demand from electric vehicles, heat pumps, and other technologies.
The only new nuclear power project currently under construction in the UK is the controversial Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset, which is being developed by a partnership between EDF and China’s CGN. The two firms have also proposed new projects at Sizewell C in Suffolk and Bradwell B in Essex, but the plans have been stuck in the pipeline for years while the developers await confirmation from the government of the policy and subsidy framework in which they might operate.
Meanwhile, the government is pushing for the development of a fleet of small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) plants across the UK as part of a project led by Rolls Royce. Ministers last year provided £210m funding for the ambitious project, but critics maintain the technology remains at an early stage and questions over the costs and viability of the plans remain.
The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) today hailed Hunterston B as Scotland’s “most valuable clean energy asset”, and warned that with no replacement for the nuclear plant, the gap in generating capacity its retirement creates would need to be filled in part by imported gas sourced from volatile global markets.
Hunterston B’s closure comes with the world in the grips of an energy crisis thanks to surging gas prices, which has driven around 20 UK energy suppliers into bankruptcy in recent months and led to soaring bills for businesses and households.
NIA chief executive Tom Greatrex claimed the failure to replace Britain’s ageing nuclear fleet would drive up consumer bills, undermine emissions reduction efforts, and threaten Scotland’s energy security.
“As the current energy crisis demonstrates, without nuclear the cost of the electricity we rely on is higher, causes pollution and leaves us reliant on burning imported fossil fuels,” he argued. “That’s why we need new nuclear – to get to net zero and provide the reliable, secure and clean power to live our lives.”
Others, however, have long highlighted the high costs and uncertainties surrounding the development of new nuclear power plants in the UK, with Hinkley Point C having already run over budget and had its scheduled completion date pushed back several times.
WWF Scotland director, Lang Banks, said the “inevitable” closure of Hunterston B underscored the need to rapidly scale up more renewable electricity capacity to meet the country’s power needs.
“The repeated failure to solve the problem of hundreds of cracks in the graphite bricks surrounding the reactor core means the closure of Hunterson B was inevitable,” he said. “Thankfully Scotland has massively grown its renewable power generating capacity which means we’ll no longer need the electricity from this increasingly unreliable nuclear power plant. As the expensive and hazardous job of cleaning up the radioactive legacy Hunterston leaves in its wake now begins, Scotland must press on with plans to harness more clean, renewable energy.”