The 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 on the global stage.
But a number of nuclear experts have questioned the validity of these claims and disputed the parallels between CGN and Huawei, the controversial Chinese 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 Greenwich University, 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 essential in bringing the money in,” he says.
“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 projects.
“It could be a ticking time bomb,” says Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham.
Meanwhile, 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 Britain’s regulatory framework for nuclear power 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 that China has a stranglehold over Britain’s nuclear industry is not accurate, Greatrex says.
The nuclear lobby leader dismisses comparisons between CGN and Huawei, saying that 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,” says Greatre, a former shadow energy minister. “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 UK carbon emissions by 2050.
According to the engineering titan 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” to the UK’s 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 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 high power, 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,” he said.
A year on, as Covid-19 ravages the energy sector and strict emissions targets loom, Britain’s nuclear ambitions appear more uncertain than ever.