How Doubts Over China Could Affect UK Power Generation

The UK energy industry could soon experience a shakeup, as pressure is placed on the government to review China’s involvement in the nuclear sector.


With Conservative MPs having been successful in removing Chinese telecom giant Huawei from British mobile phone networks by 2027, the Government is now turning their attention to the proposed nuclear power station which will be built at Bradwell-on-Sea in the South-east, and is backed by China.


Blocking the proposal


The agreement to build the nuclear plant was reached under David Cameron’s government. The terms state that CGN, a Chinese nuclear group, will be allowed to build its nuclear power station in exchange for supporting two other big nuclear projects led by the French.


Hinkley Point C, the first of the French nuclear projects, is underway with costs amounting to £22.5 billion. CGN is found to have already poured billions of pounds into the project.


An insider close to Tory MPs revealed that a group of rebel MP’s is planning to convene and figure out what to do about the proposed Bradwell nuclear power station.


These rebel MPs are said to be backed by a US administration vocally opposing China’s role in the British nuclear programme. They hope that the decision to remove Huawei from the country’s 5G mobile network means that the government will also support their stand on the issue.


Christopher Ashley Ford, US assistant secretary on non-proliferation and international security, cautioned the UK against making deals with CGN. He maintained that Washington held evidence that the Chinese company has converted civilian technology for military purposes.

CGN declined to refute this accusation.


Iain Duncan Smith, senior Conservative MP, asked for a round of reviews concerning nuclear contracts, since China’s status as a ‘trusted vendor’ is questionable.


Scrutinising China’s involvement


This move to investigate China’s role in the UK’s nuclear programme is timely, as Britain works towards its ‘net-zero carbon emissions by 2050’ target.


While nuclear projects have received some support from the industry, plans for building privately funded reactors are at a standstill.


Japanese giant Toshiba first scrapped its Moorside project in Cumbria, while Hitachi also withdrew from a similar scheme in Anglesey. That left only the two EDF-led projects – namely Hinkley Point C and Sizewell – as well as the Bradwell project under CGN.


The Chinese firm was brought into the nuclear sector to preserve the state’s funds. The company was willing to aid in financing deals, leading to the quid pro quo agreement concerning the Bradwell project. This scheme also allows CGN to highlight its HPR1000 reactor technology, which had the potential to be exported worldwide.


Some MPs are positive that the current government does not need CGN’s support anymore, mainly since it is willing to uphold public subsidies.


CGN’s Bradwell site is currently waiting for regulatory approval for the reactor. It is also waiting for the go-ahead from the Office for Nuclear Regulation, an independent office that oversees the Generic Design Assessment (or GDA). The company hopes to receive an approval within the next eighteen months.

Pressure on ministers


UK ministers are preparing to publish new energy policies within the year. Still, the head of construction for the country’s first nuclear power plant is calling for the government’s stance on nuclear energy to be clarified. Currently, the uncertainty around China’s involvement in the sector is putting strain on the progress of various nuclear projects in the country.


Hinkley Point C’s developer EDF is doubling efforts to meet its 2025 target, helping to bolster the UK’s net-zero emission goals.


The ambitious plans for introducing new nuclear reactors have met delays following the withdrawal of Hitachi and Toshiba from their respective projects.


Stuart Crooks, Hinkley Point C managing director, said that no amount of financing would matter if the government does not take a concrete stance on the nuclear sector. Stakeholders are hoping to receive a clear decision from ministers before the year ends, along with a long-overdue energy white paper.


The UK’s electricity generation from nuclear power accounts for around a fifth of all power generated in total. However, several reactors are due for retirement by the mid-2030s, and replacements have to be decided upon years before they’re needed.


EDF warned that the recent coronavirus crisis would push plans back to 2027. Add to that the scrutiny over its partner CGN, and it all adds up to even more problems for the French company.