China could quit UK nuclear projects if role threatened, experts warn


UK energy updates

China General Nuclear is likely to walk away from the Hinkley Point C power station being built in Somerset if the Chinese state-owned nuclear company is forced out of other future projects in the UK, industry experts warned on Monday.

The Financial Times revealed that the British government was exploring ways to remove CGN from the consortium planning to build the new £20bn Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk. Ministers are also going cold on plans by CGN to build a new plant at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex using its own reactor technology.

The company is already a minority investor in the 3.2 gigawatt Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which France’s EDF is building.

One nuclear industry executive warned that CGN could now reassess its involvement with Hinkley Point. They pointed out there were four interlinked agreements between CGN, EDF and the government dating to 2015: Hinkley Point, Sizewell, Bradwell and the pursuit of regulatory approval for China’s reactor design.

“Neither EDF nor the government can assume they can just deal with Sizewell in isolation,” the executive said.

“If you open one agreement then you potentially open all four. Legally, you open one part of the agreement, you run the risk of opening all parts of the agreement.” 

Steve Thomas, emeritus professor of energy policy at University of Greenwich, said CGN’s investment in Hinkley was designed to make a profit and also help secure its plant at Bradwell. With both of those now in jeopardy, the company could quit the UK, he warned.

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The Chinese company is eager to get UK regulatory approval at Bradwell for its own Hualong One HPR1000 reactor in order to help market it in other countries. The reactor design is currently going through the UK’s rigorous approval process with a decision expected in the second quarter of next year.

But Thomas pointed out that with Hinkley’s budget having jumped from £14bn to as much as £22.5bn it was no longer clear whether the consortium would make a profit. “I would have thought that would put it into lossmaking territory,” he said.

“They may well be very happy for an excuse to get out of it,” Thomas said. “If Bradwell is off the agenda and Hinkley Point won’t make money, why stick around?”

CGN declined to comment.

Ministers would now prefer a situation where CGN is replaced as a minority investor in Sizewell. The change in mood at the top of government reflects the rapid cooling in relations between London and Beijing in the last couple of years — in contrast to attempts by former prime minister David Cameron to court investment from China.

Tim Yeo, a former Tory energy minister who now chairs the New Nuclear Watch Institute, an industry-supported think-tank, said concerns about Chinese involvement in UK nuclear had been overstated. Any disruption or interference in its operations would close down all export opportunities elsewhere for CGN, he argued.

“The notion that China would arbitrarily close down a plant which they had built in UK for some geopolitical reason is absurd,” he said. “They have nothing to gain and everything to lose by disrupting the supply of electricity from a nuclear plant which they had built here.”

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Alison Downes of Stop Sizewell C, a pressure group, said the government’s position threw EDF’s funding problems for the new plant into sharper relief: “The simple fact is that Sizewell C won’t go ahead without new investors,” she said.



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