UPDATE 1-EDF Energy says UK's Hinkley Point B nuclear plant could close earlier than planned

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LONDON, Sept 9 (Reuters) - EDF Energy said on Wednesday its Hinkley Point B nuclear plant in southwest England could close earlier than planned, and it would be able to confirm the closure date by the end of the year.

The 1 gigawatt (GW) plant in Somerset was due to be shut down permanently in early 2023. It began operation in 1976.

“It is possible we may need to move into defuelling within the next two years. We will review this decision in the same detailed way as we have with Hunterston B and expect to be able to confirm the outcome by the end of this year,” said a spokesman for EDF Energy, part of France’s EDF.

Last month, EDF Energy said it would start decommissioning its Hunterston B nuclear power plant in Scotland by January 2022 at the latest.

Both Hunterston B and Hinkley Point B have had issues with ageing, as cracks were found in graphite bricks which form reactor cores, prompting some industry experts to foresee their permanent closure soon.

Nearly all of Britain’s 9 GW nuclear fleet is composed of advanced gas-cooled reactors. A factor of ageing in that type of reactor is cracks in the graphite bricks.

Half of Britain’s eight operating nuclear power stations are due to move into decommissioning by March 2024, removing around 4 GW of power capacity.

“This has been the case for several years and underlines the urgent need for investment in new, low-carbon nuclear power to help Britain achieve net-zero (emissions) and secure the future for its nuclear industry, supply chain and workers,” the EDF Energy spokesman added.

EDF Energy is currently building a new plant, Hinkley Point C, which is not due to start up until 2025 and is awaiting a government decision on funding for its Sizewell C project. (Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Jan Harvey and Mark Potter)