Rushing to stop Russian uranium from fueling UK nuclear power

EDF is looking for alternatives to Russian uranium used in one of its biggest UK power stations amid growing fallout from the war on Ukraine.

Its Sizewell B station on the Suffolk coast uses Russian uranium purchased before the war and is expected to be refueled next year with pre-war stocks containing Russian uranium.

The French state-owned company has about two years’ supply of uranium in stock for the station and said it was “considering alternative options for future supply”.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has sent shockwaves through global energy markets as countries attempt to cut off Moscow or replace supplies for fear of disruption.

On Saturday, Moscow cut off gas supplies to Finland after refusing to pay in rubles and asking for NATO membership, having already cut off Poland and Bulgaria.

The United States has banned imports of Russian oil while the United Kingdom plans to do the same by the end of the year, and the EU is trying to reduce its demand for Russian gas by 25% this year. British steel companies also stopped buying Russian coal.

Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of uranium, with around 40% of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity.

Its allies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are also dominant, with the three countries together supplying about half of the uranium used in US nuclear power plants.

The state-owned uranium company Rosatom claims 17% of the world’s nuclear fuel market.

EDF owns the entire UK fleet of eight nuclear power stations, which generate around 16% of UK electricity during the year.

Sizewell B is the only pressurized water reactor, and the only one to use Russian uranium, EDF said. It provides around 3% of electricity in the UK.

An EDF spokesperson said: “EDF is complying with all requirements of the UK and French governments regarding the sanctions imposed on Russia.

“The fuel of the AGR [advanced gas-cooled reactor] fleet is not from Russia and any Sizewell B fuel sourced from Russia was purchased long before the conflict began.

“We will not need any contribution from Russia to keep our factories running for at least the next two years, and we are considering alternative options for future refueling beyond that.”

Nuclear power is central to the UK’s long-term energy strategy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants eight new reactors to be built by 2050 to replace shutting down generators and supply around 25% of projected electricity demand.

Sizewell B is the only one in the UK fleet not to close by 2028 as the other seven aging factories are decommissioned after years of operation.

MPs last week called on the government to ‘urgently consider’ whether the UK’s aging nuclear fleet could stay open longer than planned, amid concerns over the gap they will leave in supply in electricity.

MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said there was ‘huge uncertainty’ about the commissioning of alternative energy projects and flagged the risks of depending imported energy.

EDF plans to keep Sizewell B open for at least 20 years beyond its planned closing date of 2035, arguing this will help protect jobs and energy security.

The company is also building the new Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, but on Thursday night it pushed back its start date by a further year, to June 2027, and costs have risen by another £1bn .

This is the project’s fourth budget increase since signing a funding agreement with the government in 2016, when it was expected to cost £18billion and be ready by 2025.

In a memo to staff, Hinkley Point C general manager Stuart Crooks said the pandemic has hampered work rhythms, while labor shortages and high energy costs add to current challenges .

EDF is also in negotiations with ministers over the construction of a second new power station, Sizewell C in Suffolk, which it says is ‘unlikely’ to face the same challenges as Hinkley Point C as it is a “copy” and lessons can be learned.

The plant will likely be funded using a financing mechanism new to the UK nuclear industry in which the risk of cost overruns is shared between developers and consumers.

The aim is to reduce overall costs by reducing financing costs, but critics have raised concerns about the risks borne by consumers.

Ministers are reportedly keen to block any continued involvement in Sizewell C by EDF’s minority partner, China’s CGN, amid concerns over China’s role in critical national infrastructure.

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