Spreading cracks at the Torness nuclear power station in East Lothian mean that it will have to close two years earlier than planned, according to its operator, EDF Energy.
The power company has told stakeholders it now expects to shut the station down in 2028 instead of 2030 because of “impacts on the graphite cores”.
The Ferret revealed in May 2020 that the cores of the two reactors at Torness were predicted to start cracking in 2022, six years earlier than previous thought. At the time EDF maintained that the station could keep generating electricity safety until 2030.
But the Torness director, Tam Al Bishawi, has now written to the station’s local liaison council disclosing that EDF had carried out a “Torness lifetime review”. This resulted in “a change to the expected end of generation dates for two of its stations”, he said.
“Torness, in East Lothian, and Heysham 2, in Lancashire, are now expected to continue generating until March 2028. In 2016, the sites’ operational lives were extended by seven years to 2030.”
Al Bishawi said that inspection, modelling and operational experience from other nuclear stations had given EDF a “clearer picture” of lifetime expectations for ageing nuclear stations.
A similar reactor at Hunterston B nuclear power station in North Ayrshire was permanently closed down on 26 November 2021, after 46 years of operation. The station’s second reactor is due to be turned off before 7 January 2022, 15 months earlier than previously planned.
Hunterston is 12 years older than Torness, and has been plagued by increasing cracks in its graphite cores caused by radiation bombardment. The Ferret reported in October 2020 that EDF estimated that one of Hunterston’s reactors could end up with nearly a thousand cracks.
Al Bishawi pointed out that Torness had generated a “huge amount” of electricity — enough to power every home in Scotland for 28 years. “While this has provided numerous benefits to the economy and the climate, it does mean that we expect to start seeing impacts on the graphite cores,” he added.
“The station’s nuclear safety performance is at best ever levels. There have been no nuclear reportable events for over ten years.”
According to EDF, Torness employs around 500 staff and 250 contractors and has an annual wage bill of around £40m a year giving a “real boost to the local economy”.
Campaigners are seeking assurances that nuclear safety is not being compromised. “Problems with cracks in the graphite core which led to the closure of Hunterston B are clearly expected to cause similar problems at Torness,” said Pete Roche, an Edinburgh-based nuclear critic.
“But Torness has a significant design difference likely to make the problem worse. Judging by statements made by the nuclear regulator it might be expected that Torness should close in 2024 or soon after.”
Roche suggested that EDF would strive to keep the station open as long as possible. “The Scottish Government should seek assurances from the Office of Nuclear Regulation that EDF will not be allowed to drag things out so long that safety is compromised,” he added.
Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that EDF had had to “admit the inevitable” and close earlier than planned. “The remaining question is whether they will make it even that far,” said the environment group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“Nuclear is incredibly expensive, and suffers from complex problems like these cracks, as well as creating waste which will have to be looked after for thousands of years.”
Edinburgh Green councillor, Steve Burgess, also questioned how safe it was to keep running Torness. “This isn’t very reassuring news from Torness,” he said.
“Announcing that they are closing two years early, with mention of the graphite core, means EDF are acknowledging that they are coming hard up against a time when it really isn’t safe to operate.”
EDF Energy said that the decision on the change of end of generation date for Torness and Heysham 2 was taken following a series of company executive, board and shareholders meetings on 13 and 14 December 2021.
“We’ve been talking to stakeholders for years now about the expected changes to the graphite at Torness,” added an EDF spokesperson. This included “reporting the findings of our graphite inspections which, to date, haven’t identified any keyway root cracking at the station.”
Keyway cracks are fissures at the base of key slots in the graphite cores of reactors. According to the Office for Nuclear Regulation, they are the type of cracks most likely to limit the lifetime of ageing reactors.
The letter from Torness nuclear power station
This story was updated at 16.30 on 15 December 2021 to include additional comments from EDF Energy. Cover image thanks to the company.