Thursday, December 08, 2005

Longer-life Scottish power stations may aid Blair's pro-nuclear rethink News - UK - Longer-life Scottish power stations may aid Blair's pro-nuclear rethink

SCOTLAND'S nuclear power stations could remain in operation long past their present decommissioning date, their owner, British Energy, agreed yesterday.

The company said that while Hunterston and Torness are set for closure in 2011 and 2023 respectively, it would be technically possible to keep them running for longer. It said a decision would need to be made three years before the closure dates.

Last week the Prime Minister indicated a rethink on energy policy by the government that might include replacing Britain's existing 14 nuclear power stations, at an estimated cost of �1 billion each, as they reach the end of their projected useful life.

If that happened, it would be against fierce opposition from environmental and conservation groups who see renewable energy from wind, wave, tide, hydro and biomass sources as the future - and disposal of nuclear waste a potential disaster hanging over the Earth for tens of thousands of years to come.

The added complication for Scotland, where about 50 per cent of present electricity needs are met by Torness and Hunterston, is that a decision to build more nuclear power stations would be up to the UK government.

Planning permission for any new nuclear plant, however, would be up to the Scottish Executive, within which pro- and anti-nuclear opinions are deeply divided.

A spokesman for the Executive said yesterday that the question of extending the life of existing nuclear plants was a decision for the owners and the industry's regulators.

It has been suggested that the original approval and planning consents for both Hunterston and Torness, built in the 1960s and 1980s respectively, would be permanent and allow new plants to be built alongside.

The Executive spokesman ruled that theory out. In each case, consent had been given for a single power station only. Land is available alongside Torness, but Executive planning permission would be needed to build a new station.

A senior member of staff at Torness told a newspaper yesterday that the working life of the East Lothian nuclear plant, now supplying about 25 per cent of Scotland's electricity, could be extended well beyond 2040.

Robert Gunn, Torness's system health manager, said: "There's no hard line to say we can't go beyond, say, 2040 or whatever date we pick, as long as we and the regulators are happy we've addressed all the safety issues."

However, Sue Fletcher, spokeswoman for British Energy in Scotland, said that while there was a theoretical possibility that the working lives of Hunterston and Torness could be extended, it did not mean it would happen.

She said: "Consideration of what is happening and what might happen is continuous. So there is nothing new in the suggestion that their working lives could be extended. But a decision on whether that might happen will not be made until three years before they are due to close. That is, a decision on Hunterston in 2008, for Torness in 2020."

Such a decision, she said, would not be taken in isolation. It would also have to satisfy the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the government's nuclear safety watchdog.

There are examples of deciding to extend a station's working life, most recently adding ten years to the Dungeness plant in Kent to take it up to 2018. But British Energy says that was an individual decision, not a precedent.

Stuart Hay, head of policy at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "British Energy is saying that now, but it is talking about extending and replacing nuclear stations when our energy needs can be supplied by renewables if the political will is there.

"What we are saying is, 'Put the money in now' so that alternative sources like wind, hydro and biomass can eventually take over from nuclear."

At present Scotland has 570 megawatts of installed wind power capacity. A further 450 megawatts' potential is under construction, with planning approval in the pipeline for another 676 megawatts.

But wind power critics argue that - because wind power is intermittent - that total only counts as a potential 600 megawatts by 2011 when Hunterston is scheduled to close, with a loss of 2,000 megawatts of generating capacity.

It would take between seven and 13 years, from the point of decision, to build a new nuclear power station.


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