Elec­tri­cal storm: Bei­jing’s role in Bri­tish nu­clear power stokes fears over creep­ing in­flu­ence

Politi­cians and aca­demics at log­ger­heads as UK charts path to­wards car­bon goals,

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Focus On China - writes Ed Clowes

The po­ten­tial threat posed by Chi­nese in­volve­ment in Bri­tain’s nu­clear power in­fra­struc­ture has been over­stated, ex­perts ar­gue, de­spite ris­ing con­cern about Bei­jing’s in­flu­ence over the west.

Politi­cians have be­gun qui­etly sug­gest­ing that China Gen­eral Nu­clear Power Group (CGN) could be­come the next Huawei, and be scru­ti­nised by MPs want­ing to take a harder line on China’s ris­ing power. But a num­ber of nu­clear ex­perts have ques­tioned the va­lid­ity of these claims and dis­puted the par­al­lels be­tween CGN and Huawei, the con­tro­ver­sial tech­nol­ogy com­pany that is set to play a piv­otal role in Bri­tain’s 5G mo­bile net­works.

“CGN has a rel­a­tively small role in the con­struc­tion of Hink­ley Point C and Sizewell C,” says Steve Thomas, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of en­ergy pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Green­wich, re­fer­ring to two new UK nu­clear re­ac­tors be­ing planned. The Chi­nese com­pany has a 33pc equity stake in the con­struc­tion of Hink­ley Point C, where it has part­nered with EDF, the French en­ergy gi­ant over­see­ing the £25bn project. “I’m against Hink­ley Point C for en­vi­ron­men­tal and fi­nan­cial rea­sons,” says Prof Thomas, while adding that he views con­cerns sur­round­ing Bei­jing’s in­flu­ence in Bri­tain’s new nu­clear re­ac­tors as some­what overblown.

That is a view shared by David Toke, pro­fes­sor of en­ergy pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Aberdeen: “My im­pres­sion is that they’re not es­sen­tial in the en­gi­neer­ing sense, but they are

‘Our en­ergy pol­icy is in the hands of the Chi­nese. Just in that one sec­tor, we have com­plete dom­i­na­tion’

es­sen­tial in bring­ing the money in. It was dif­fi­cult to find co-in­vestors in the pri­vate sec­tor for these projects.

“The only rea­son EDF got in­volved is be­cause they are owned by the French state, who have their own rea­sons for want­ing to get in­volved.”

Re­cently, a spate of politi­cians and aca­demics have pub­licly crit­i­cised the in­volve­ment of CGN in the two

“It could be a tick­ing time bomb,” says An­thony Glees, the di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Se­cu­rity and In­tel­li­gence Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Buck­ing­ham.

Sir Iain Dun­can Smith is call­ing on the Govern­ment to carry out a “root and branch” re­view of its de­pen­dency on China. “Our en­ergy pol­icy is in the hands of the Chi­nese. Just in that one sec­tor, we have com­plete dom­i­na­tion by China when we should be strate­gi­cally re­view­ing it,” he says.

The Nu­clear In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion re­jects this claim, with its boss de­scrib­ing the UK’s regulatory frame­work for nu­clear power as the most ro­bust in the world.

“Nu­clear is a very reg­u­lated sec­tor, and par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to re­ac­tor de­sign and se­cu­rity,” says Tom Greatrex, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s head. “It’s a very thor­ough process and renowned as the best in the world.”

While CGN is a sig­nif­i­cant part of Hink­ley Point C, to sug­gest China has a stran­gle­hold over Bri­tain’s nu­clear in­dus­try is not ac­cu­rate, Greatrex says.

He dis­misses com­par­isons be­tween CGN and Huawei, say­ing the nu­clear in­dus­try is sub­ject to a rig­or­ous ap­proval process that makes it dif­fer­ent to other sec­tors. “If the con­cern is about safety or se­cu­rity of de­sign, that is an in­te­gral part of the regulatory ap­proval process, which is the envy of the world,” adds Greatrex. “If the con­cerns are more geopo­lit­i­cal, that’s for the Govern­ment to take a view on, but I’m con­fi­dent in the UK’s regulatory process.”

The de­bate around the fu­ture of Bri­tain’s nu­clear pro­gramme is likely to be cen­tral to ef­forts to slash car­bon emis­sions by 2050. Ac­cord­ing to en­gi­neer­ing busi­ness Atkins, nu­clear power will be es­sen­tial to Bri­tain’s hopes of be­ing net-zero in the next three decades. Nu­clear en­ergy is “a crit­i­cal but cur­rently un­der­val­ued el­e­ment” in the en­ergy sys­tem, Atkins says. “It is en­tirely pos­si­ble that the least-cost route to net-zero will re­quire con­sid­er­ably more nu­clear power than is be­ing con­sid­ered,” ac­cord­ing to the com­pany.

“If the UK’s nu­clear new-build mar­ket is ef­fec­tively shut down in the mid-2030s it will be both dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive to res­ur­rect this ca­pa­bil­ity late in the run-up to 2050.”

A report re­leased last month sup­ports this claim. The UK must com­mit to 10 gi­gawatts of new nu­clear power – much more than is slated to be brought on­line – to get to net-zero by 2050. But cru­cially, costs must fall first. Nu­clear power is a “low-re­grets

‘Nu­clear is a very reg­u­lated sec­tor, and par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to re­ac­tor de­sign and se­cu­rity’

op­tion”, ac­cord­ing to new re­search by En­ergy Sys­tems Cat­a­pult, an en­ergy think-tank.

Hink­ley Point C is sched­uled to pro­vide close to 7pc of all of the UK’s elec­tric­ity de­mand when it comes on­line in 2025. This kind of high­power, low-emis­sions gen­er­a­tion is es­sen­tial to achiev­ing net-zero, the report says, adding that the Govern­ment may even need to com­mit to as much as 50 gi­gawatts of nu­clear power by 2050 to truly de­car­bonise the en­ergy grid.

In June 2019, Boris Johnson stated his “pas­sion­ate” sup­port for nu­clear power in his first ad­dress as Prime Min­is­ter to the House of Com­mons.

“It is time for a nu­clear re­nais­sance and I be­lieve pas­sion­ately that nu­clear must be part of our en­ergy mix,” Mr Johnson said.

A year on, as Covid-19 rav­ages the en­ergy sec­tor and strict emis­sions tar­gets loom, Bri­tain’s nu­clear am­bi­tions now ap­pear more un­cer­tain than ever.

An artist’s im­pres­sion of the Hink­ley Point C nu­clear power sta­tion, which is sched­uled to come on­line in 2025

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