Beijing has urged the British government to reach a decision as soon as possible on Hinkley Point C, the proposed nuclear power plant in Somerset, as China looks to secure its nuclear industry’s first deal in a developed country.
British Prime Minister Theresa May caused shock last week when she said that final approval for the project would be put back until autumn.
The state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp, which has agreed to provide a third of the funding for the 18 billion pound ($23.9 billion; 21.3 billion euros) plant, had expected Downing Street to give the green light after the board at French power company EDF, the main investor, approved the plans on July 29.
However, May said there will be a full review of the Hinkley plan, raising concern that Britain’s attitude toward foreign investment in its energy infrastructure could be shifting.
British officials say the prime minister was told during a visit to Paris last month that EDF was to move a key board meeting forward from September to July, and that she told the French she would stand by the original timetable of final approval by autumn.
British Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark said the government will “consider carefully all the component parts of this project and make its decision in the early autumn”.
On Aug 1, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called for a final decision from London as soon as possible.
British media have reported that the delay is related to security concerns about Chinese investment, which have been fueled by comments from critics like Nick Timothy, May’s joint chief of staff, who was quoted by The Guardian last year that China could “build weaknesses into computer systems (at Hinkley) which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will”. In a commentary piece, Xinhua News Ageny called the nuclear cooperation a sign of the “golden era” in China-UK ties and warned that halting it would see Britain run the risk of “dampening the hard-won mutual trust”.
The project also requires final approval from the Chinese government.
“CGN is committed to delivering this much-needed nuclear capacity and providing the UK with safe, reliable and sustainable energy,” the company said in a statement. “We respect the new (British) government’s need to familiarize itself with a project as important as Hinkley Point, and we stand ready to help the government in this respect.”
China’s nuclear industry will be anxious to see the project go ahead, as it would pave the way for CGN and EDF to cooperate on a project in Bradwell, Essex, that would use the Chinese-made Hualong One reactor.
David Cameron, who stepped down as prime minister after Britain narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a June 23 referendum, and former chancellor George Osborne were strong supporters of the nuclear deal, as they wanted to attract more Chinese investment to the UK.
Because of this, “immediate approval by the successive British government was very much expected”, says Wang Aijuan, strategy director at consultancy Mott MacDonald. “We learned that the Chinese government was ready to give its approval.”
Supporters of Hinkley Point C say the project will create thousands of jobs and secure Britain’s energy supply. However, critics warn of escalating costs.
The project is to use the European pressurized reactor technology, the same as at Flamanville in France, which is more than three times over budget and years behind schedule. Finland’s Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, which also uses EPR, is nine years behind schedule and three times over budget.
“Until EDF gets other EPR reactors up and running in Finland and France, it’s very difficult not to maintain a healthy skepticism with regard to project delivery – any escalating costs or overruns would eat into profitability,” says Andrew Shepherd, senior energy and infrastructure analyst at BMI Research.
Britain has launched a contest to find a design for a small modular reactor to deploy in future nuclear projects, providing an opportunity for China to collaborate in advancing the technology.
The competition, run by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, aims to find the best value SMR, which is a miniature power plant with a capacity of less than 300 megawatts.
China National Nuclear Corp is among the candidates, along with heavyweights including Westinghouse, NuScale, Npower and Rolls-Royce.
The British government has committed 250 million pounds ($333 million; 296 million euros) over the next five years to the project, which will see the winning design used in the British market.
As the SMR market is less developed, “Chinese vendors have a great opportunity to be first to build and demonstrate commercial scale SMR designs, leveraging the strong existing nuclear new-build program in China, and the consequent skills and industrial supply chain that has grown up to serve that industry”, says Tony Ward, an analyst at EY.
The concept of SMRs has been around for many years. China, South Korea, the United States and Russia all have designs, although none have been built to commercial scale.
China National Nuclear Corp has an agreement with the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, a government-funded organization led by the universities of Sheffield and Manchester, to cooperate on localizing its SMR design – the ACP100 – should it win the competition.
Mike Tynan, the center’s CEO, says that the partnership could bring win-win benefits, as the resulting technology could be used not just in the UK, but also in other advanced economies.
The ACP100 reactor has been under development since 2010 and reached a milestone in May when it passed a final safety review by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Two demonstration sites fitted with ACP100s are being built in the southwestern province of Fujian.