Concerns about the UK’s future energy security have been raised this week as one of the countries most productive nuclear power plants, has been turned off.
Shortly after 10am on Monday 1st August the last steam rose from Hinkley Point B power station, which has, since 1976, produced reliable zero carbon electricity for 81 million homes. In its 46 years, Hinkley Point B has generated 311 billion kilowatt-hours, which is enough to power 100 million homes for a year at the average UK usage. Over its lifetime, the station has also saved 107 million tonnes of CO2 (worth £8.3 billion at today’s carbon price).
Hinkley Point B, which is based in Somerset, has contributed about 3% of the UK’s total yearly power needs and its closure has left many industry experts warning that this will lead to a substantial rise in the cost of energy at a time when prices are already at an all-time high.
With Hinkley B no longer producing power, more electricity will need to be generated using fossil fuels, such as gas, whose scarcity has led to record-breaking prices. But, why has the station been switched off, and what are the environmental and human costs of this closure likely to be?
Why did Hinkley B have to close?
Putting it plainly, Hinkley B has come to the end of its natural life as a working power plant.
When it was first planned back in the 1960s, it was only expected to operate for a few years into the new century, with the original end of life date set for 2016. However, thanks to the diligent and scrupulous care of the technology, EDF, the owners of the plant, announced it could safely continue operating until 2022.
It is a testament to those who have worked to keep Hinkley Point B operational that it was able to keep producing low carbon electricity 15 years longer than it was originally designed to do.
With Hinkley Point B’s retirement, the UK now has five generating nuclear power stations. Two further stations will retire by March 2024, and all but one will retire by March 2028. However, Hinkley Point C is currently under construction in Somerset and expects to begin power generation in 2027. It is the first nuclear power station to be built in the UK for more than 20 years. EDF also plans to build a new reactor next to the current Sizewell B station in Suffolk, however is currently waiting for the Secretary of State to approve the application.
What does the closure of Hinkley B mean for UK energy?
Before the closure of Hinkley B, nuclear power made up around 20% of the energy used every day, with a fifth of this coming from Somerset. Now there are only five remaining nuclear sites left across the UK, and they are unable to increase their output.
As a result, more energy will need producing using gas power plants to make up the shortfall and price rises are inevitable.
Building on this, some experts argue that by decreasing the UK’s nuclear availability, we are guaranteeing ourselves less space to choose the cheapest source of power from the wholesale market and keep prices down. This means millions of families across the UK will continue to feel the rising costs of energy if our options for power remain limited.
In May, chief executive at energy regulator Ofgem Jonathan Brearley said the typical household should expect to see an £800 increase in energy bills, to £2,800 a year. But, just two months later, in July, in conversation with MP’s he claimed “[the] prices are looking higher than they did when we made that estimate”. However, no additional estimates were presented at the time.
As well as those who will be impacted by the rising cost of electricity following its closure, it is important to remember that Hinkley Point B has been a place of work and community for thousands of employees over the years and has been a major employer across the region.
Today, the plant employs around 750 people, with many generations of families working side by side. Its closure has understandably been met with mixed emotions from those who have worked to make it the UK’s most productive nuclear power plant.
Reflecting on the closure, Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, said: “The dedicated staff who have helped keep homes in the South West warm and light for 46 years, deserve our gratitude. As the current energy crisis demonstrates, without nuclear the cost of the electricity we rely on is higher and leaves us reliant on burning imported fossil fuels. That’s why we need new nuclear.”
However, it is important to note that there are many who see the closure of Hinkley Point B as long overdue.
For decades, many local activists have campaigned against nuclear power across Somerset. These local groups have argued that these power plants produce harmful nuclear waste which has detrimental impacts on the health of the environment and local communities.
Furthermore, campaigners argue it will take 100 years before the waste is cleared underground and that it will burden future generations who will have to continue ensuring the radioactive waste is managed safely.
Whilst opinions around the sustainability, safety and utility of nuclear power continue to vary, it is clear that the current energy crisis facing the UK is only set to worsen and the need for further debate, discussion, information, and evidence to help identify greener and more cost-effective sources of energy are critical.
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