UK may cut Chinese involvement in nuclear development, which could impact France

·3 min read

The British government is looking at ways to eliminate participation of China’s state-run nuclear energy company from all future power projects in the UK, according to The Financial Times.

The change in Britain's stance could affect the Sizewell C nuclear energy project in Suffolk, England, which France's EDF is scheduled to build with backing from CGN. It could also impact proposals for a new plant at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.

'Change in mood'

The newspaper, quoting “people close to the discussions” said that the “change in mood” at the top of government affects proposals by China General Nuclear (CGN) to build a new plant at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex using its own reactor technology, raising questions about the future of the UK’s nuclear energy programme.

The lack of appetite for Chinese cooperation in the nuclear energy field follows a gradual cooling off of relations between London and Beijing where London (in line with Washington and the EU) is increasingly worried about China’s clampdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong, its repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, its lack of transparency in the handling of the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, and its increasing military assertiveness in the South China Sea.

In April last year, at the hight of the first wave of the pandemic, British Foreign secretary Dominic Raab stated that the UK could no longer do “business as usual” with China.

The writing on the wall came when Downing Street decided to ban Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei from involvement in the UK’s 5G network, and the ousting of China’s tv-station CGTN from broadcasting platforms.

Historic collaboration

The collaboration on nuclear power goes back to a 2015 deal that was endorsed by David Cameron, then-British prime minister, and Chinese president Xi Jinping, and constituted the first major Chinese investment in a western nuclear facility.

According to the deal, CGN would become a 20 per cent partner in the development of the planned Sizewell C plant in Suffolk.

It also initiated Chinese investment in the 3.2 gigawatt Hinkley Point C nuclear power facility, currently under construction.

According to the Financial Times, CGN also became the lead developer of the proposed Bradwell B plant in Essex, where the Chinese-made Hualong HPR1000 reactor technology was to be installed.

The UK may now follow the US, which already put CGN on an export blacklist in 2019, charging that it had illegally obtained US technology and used it for military purposes.

China as trade partners?

In a reaction, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian was quoted by Reuters News Agency as saying that "the British should earnestly provide an open, fair and non discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies."

“China and Britain are important trade and investment partners for each other, he added.

"It is in the interests of both sides to conduct practical cooperation in the spirit of mutual benefit and a win-win result." Zhao said.

Implications for the French

The FT reported that discussions are underway with the lead developer of Sizewell C, the French state-backed electricity company EDF, about whether it could find new partners for the project. Both CGN and EDF declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the French have their own problems with aspects of China’s nuclear energy.

In June, The French nuclear firm Framatome, owned by EDF, said it was working to resolve a "performance issue" at an EPR plant it part-owns in southern China following the US media CNN report of a potential radioactive leak there.

CNN reported earlier that the US government is assessing a report of a leak at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant after the French company, Framatome, warned of an "imminent radiological threat". Framatome has a 30 percent stake in the plant.

Framatome said in a statement to French news agency AFP that it is "supporting resolution of a performance issue" at the plant. But on 22 July, EDF said it would have shut down a nuclear reactor if it suffered problems similar to those reported at the next-generation Taishan power plant in China.

(With news agencies)

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