Western Morning News (Front page), MATT CHORLEY, LONDON EDITOR, 16 December 2006

The Westcountry's only nuclear power station will not be running at full power until at least March 2008, it emerged last night.

Two reactors at Hinkley Point B have been out of action for two months after cracks were found in reactor pipes.

Work to repair them is due to be completed in the New Year - but British Energy has admitted that they will run only at 70 per cent of full capacity.

Identical problems have also blighted Hinkley Point's sister station - Hunterston B, in Scotland - which will also run at below-capacity for another 15 months.

British Energy has previously insisted that although the cracks were "at the high end of the range previously experienced", the problem was "not an issue of public safety".

In the company's latest interim results statement, it warns that while staff were "working hard" to resolve the problems, "considerable uncertainty will remain" until more work has been completed.

Hinkley Point generates electricity with a value of about £500,000 a day and its temporary closure has posed a serious financial headache for British Energy, with the interim statement warning that it will have a "significant impact on output" for this financial year.

The closure announcements in October saw almost £800 million - 25 per cent - wiped off the firm's share price as investors questioned future revenues.

Local campaigners said the on-going delays were a sign that the ageing plant - which is due to be decommissioned in five years - had outlived its usefulness and should be shut down.

Jim Duffy, of the Stop Hinkley group, said last night: "British Energy is playing Russian roulette with the lives of people nearby. Hinkley's shelf-life was 30 years and it has passed that.

"They have pushed the envelope too far. They should shut it down now."

A spokesman for British Energy said last night: "What we are aiming for is to have both reactors back on by the end of January, subject to approval by the regulators."

Hinkley B Reactor 3 is expected to be up and running by the end of this month, while Reactor 4 should be back on a month later.

He added work carried out during routine "statutory outages" over the next 12 to 18 months would aim to have both reactors running at 100 per cent capacity by March 2008. But the company's report suggests this is not definite and that the future of Hinkley still hangs in the balance.

"The extent to which load can be raised up to 100 per cent of full capacity is subject to analysis of the inter-relationship with boiler life, station life and safety cases with the aim of maximising value," it says.

The company is due to make a decision on whether to extend the accounting lives of both Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B by March 31, 2008.

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