UK de­ci­sion shows cracks in govt, or does it?

China Daily (USA) - - VIEWS - The au­thor is man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of China Daily UK. chris@mail.chi­nadai­

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.

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