British Energy hit by nuclear reactor faults

British Energy suffered another setback on Monday after it closed down two of its ageing nuclear reactors and delayed the restart of two more because of boiler problems, sending its shares down more than 8 per cent.

The closure affects about a quarter of British Energy’s nuclear-generated output, and led analysts to downgrade earnings forecasts.

British Energy said that, during a planned inspection of its Hartlepool Reactor 1, a problem was discovered with wire winding around the boiler closure unit.

“As this may have implications for sister units at Hartlepool and Heysham 1, British Energy has taken the conservative decision to take Hartlepool Reactor 2 and Heysham 1 Reactor 1 out of service for assessment and inspection,” it said.

The planned restart of the Hartlepool Reactor 1 in November, following a routine outage, would be delayed, as would the restart of Heysham 1 Reactor 2, which had been taken off-line for refuelling.

British Energy said it would take at least a week for engineers to evaluate the situation and gave no guidance on when the four reactors might start generating electricity again. If the outages persist, the company will have to buy power in the wholesale market to meet supply commitments.

This latest reactor shutdown comes as British Energy is cranking up output at its Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B power stations, both of which were shut down in October 2006 when cracks were found in boiler tubes. They are operating at only 60 per cent capacity.

Those shutdowns were largely responsible for the company reporting a 12 per cent drop in underlying profits in the second quarter despite rises in electricity prices.

British Energy has had a series of problems with ageing reactors. In 2003, an unplanned shut-down of Heysham 1 cost the company tens of millions of pounds in profit. Last October, after the shut-downs at Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B and problems at the Hartlepool and Dungeness B reactors, the company conceded that only one of its eight nuclear plants was operating normally. In November, Roy Anderson, the company’s chief nuclear officer, stepped down.

Analysts said that each week the four reactors were out of action would knock 0.4 terawatt hours from British Energy’s expected annual output of 55TWH.

One said the news was a reminder that advanced gas-cooled reactor technology, favoured by the British nuclear industry during the 1970s and used at Hartlepool and Heysham, was less reliable than conventional pressurised water reactor technology used elsewhere in the world.

British Energy’s shares fell 47p, or 8.1 per cent, to 532p.

■ December 2004: Outages caused by pipework problems at Hartlepool and Heysham blamed for wider than expected losses.

■ July 2005: Makes a profit as electricity prices rise almost 40 per cent higher year-on-year.

■ September 2006: Output forecast is cut from 63 TWH to 59-61 TWH for the year to March 2007. In the following days the share price loses almost a quarter of its value.

■ November 2006: the company’s chief nuclear officer steps down with immediate effect. It concedes that only one of its eight nuclear plants is operating normally.

■ December 2006: British Energy says repairs at Hunterston B and Hinckley B will take longer than expected.

■ June 2007: UK government sells a 28 per cent stake in British Energy for £2.3bn to help fund decommissioning. It retains 39 per cent.

■ October 2007: reactors at Hartlepool and Heysham 1 are closed after the discovery of an “issue” with wire winding at Hartlepool reactor 1.

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