UK decision shows cracks in govt, or does it?
When newBritish PrimeMinister TheresaMay’s government surprised everyone by announcing it was reviewing Chinese-backed plans to build a French-designed nuclear power plant in western England, many assumed it was over fears of too much Chinese involvement in the sensitive area of nuclear energy.
The champagne had been laid on, the dignitaries invited and following last Thursday’s decision by France’s EDF conglomerate to go ahead with its share of funding the £18 million ($23.9 million) Hinkley Point C project was all set for a quick signing ceremony. All set, that is, until a fewhours after an oft-delayed EDF board decision was taken, when British Energy Secretary Greg Clark announced Britain was reviewing the project and would make a final decision in September.
Many in theUnited Kingdom jumped to the immediate conclusion that fears over security were involved, and pointed to the malign influence of Nick Timothy, one ofMay’s closest advisers who had previously publicly expressed fears that “the government is selling our national security to China” because of the involvement of ChinaGeneral Nuclear Power Group, which is funding a third of the cost.
But what appears to be the main reason for the British government’s decision is now emerging, and proves that China and CGN were correct in their cautious reaction to the news.
EDF, which has been struggling to fund its share of the project, finally got the go-ahead from its main shareholder, the French government. Originally the EDF board had been due to meet in September but eventually moved the meeting forward to July. May was apprised of this by French President FrancoisHollande when she visited him in Paris just a week after taking office. But she toldHollande that her government would adhere to the September timetable.
May is known in the government as being more cautious than her predecessor, David Cameron, and wanted time to personally evaluate what is, after all, a controversial project. May is also known to be concerned about the rising cost of the project— in 2005 it was put at £9 billion.
Another factor to be considered is that theHinkley Point C project will be completed using only EDF technology and China’s input is only financial, so the security question does not really apply.
China was reportedly alerted to theUKgovernment’s review plan ahead of the French, which probably explains the understanding tone of the reactions of both the CGN and the Chinese ForeignMinistry.
Perhaps all this point to a mishandling of the situation by Downing Street— Chancellor of the Exchequer PhilipHammond was in China when the announcement was made, and had already talked positively about the future of Sino-British ties, especially the chances of securing a free trade agreement with China after Britain negotiates its departure from the EuropeanUnion.
Hammond was not aware of the decision to reviewthe project and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, too, was kept out of the loop. Besides, Energy Secretary Greg Clark only came to know of the announcement he was due to make on Thursday, just a fewhours after returning from a visit to Japan.
For China, involvement in the project and subsequent nuclear power stations is seen as boosting the international standards of its own nuclear plants if they pass exacting UK standards, and thus their marketability. British media reports say CGN has a tentative “plan B” if the current Hinkley Point C project fails to go ahead. That would involve building two smaller Chinese-designed reactors on the site, but a whole newagreement would have to be negotiated.
But little has been said about that.