The last year has been marked by a late, but crucial realization for the United Kingdom of its growing dependence on China for the development of new nuclear power projects in the country. Alarmed by substantial Chinese stake in the new projects, the UK government has recently begun to mull preventive actions to save the strategic sector getting into Chinese hands. The UK government is reportedly working on a deal aimed at removing China from a £ 20-billion project to construct a nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast.
The Sizewell C power station project, which is still in the planning and development phase, is owned by a French state-backed power giant EDF with an 80% holding, and the China General Nuclear (CGN) having the remaining 20%. The government now plans to acquire a stake in the project, alongside the EDF, which would result into the removal of CGN from the project. The existing nuclear facilities in the UK are owned by EDF along with Centrica, a British energy company. The company had to shut down many plants ahead of schedule and four out of the seven stations are due to retire by March 2024. As a result, there has been an increasing push to build more nuclear power plants in recent years. The exigency has proved to be quite conducive for China to enter UK in a big manner.
A nuclear deal signed during a visit to London of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 cleared the road leading to China’s future dominance in nuclear industry of UK. Under the deal, China got to fund Hinkley and Sizewell nuclear power projects, and then install its own reactors at a third site at Bradwell in Essex. However, what stoked analysts’ fears was the deal’s scope of letting China be a majority owner of a proposed plant of its own design, at a site about 50 miles from London. The fears appear to be coming true with the indigenous Hualong-I reactor design of CGN getting the approval of UK’s nuclear regulators for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and Environment Agency for construction in Britain in February 2022. With this, it joined the league of two other reactor designs approved in 2012 and 2017. CGN already owns 33.5% in the project coming up at Hinkley Point C in Somerset, which is due for completion in 2026.
The recent development demonstrates that containing China’s increasing inroads in the strategic sector is easier said than done for London. Notably, the United States has also been cautioning the country against heavy reliance on China for nuclear power plants citing national security concerns. In 2019, Washington blacklisted CGN over allegations of stealing nuclear technology. The Chinese company and its subsidiaries China General Nuclear Power Corp., China Nuclear Power Technology Research Institute, and Suzhou Nuclear Power Research Institute were reported to be trying to acquire advanced US nuclear tech for military use. The former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in mid 2020 urged Britain to choose sides in the battle to develop nuclear technology, saying it “stands ready to assist our friends in the UK with any needs they have”.
All in all, London’s difficulties in dealing with Chinese companies have been increasingly apparent in recent years. A couple of years ago the UK government announced a ban on Huawei, a Chinese telecoms equipment manufacturer, from participating in its 5G mobile phone network, citing national security concerns. The two countries have also differed on other issues including the crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, a former British colony, and the harsh treatment of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region. UK’s handling of the latest issue is of great concern and it would certainly test its ability to balance its energy needs with security concerns.