The Telegraph Comment by Professor Jeffrey Henderson and Dr Paul Dorfman, 10 July 2020
Energy lies at the heart of every modern economy – without power, nothing. And a working moral compass is the signature of a functioning democracy – without scruples, we lose our way. For good or ill, the issues of energy and morality are now coalescing in a high-consequence game being played out by the UK and Chinese governments.
Hong Kong crisis
Enforcing China’s draconian national security law in Hong Kong has outraged people and governments around the world. So far, the UK’s response is welcome, but doesn’t begin to match the enormity of the problem. Individually and in concert with others alarmed by the prospect of a global future influenced by a Chinese State that, under Xi Jinping, has intensified its penchant for extreme command and control, the British government needs to be examining ways that could help draw a “line in the sand”.
One of these would have the dual advantage of sending a clear message to the present Chinese regime without threatening Chinese workers’ jobs and saving British taxpayers billions of pounds: namely, dialling back from further Chinese state involvement in new UK nuclear power.
So far, the controversial Hinkley Point C nuclear project is being developed by a joint-venture of France’s EDF and China General Nuclear, on the basis of a two-thirds equity split in favour of EDF, with the reactors being built by Framatome.
EDF, Framatome and CGN have a long history of collaboration, having been involved in developing nuclear power stations in China since the mid-1980s, initially at Daya Bay, adjacent to Hong Kong. All three of these companies are state owned. CGN, however, is a very different corporate animal from EDF and Framatome.
Unlike the latter, which have high degrees of autonomy from the French state, CGN is ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. This is because the CCP controls not merely the government but all state agencies, including state-owned companies and, since 2013, the majority of large privately owned ones also, including Huawei. Additionally, in 2016, CGN was sanctioned in the United States for military nuclear espionage.
Chinese reactor 50 miles from central London
Meanwhile, plans for further new UK nuclear at Sizewell C in Suffolk has been progressed by a partnership comprised of 80pc EDF and 20pc CGN, with Framatome again supplying the reactor – though there is a question mark about how that project will be funded.
Under present plans, the very significant bill for all, perhaps inevitable, cost overruns will land squarely on the long-suffering UK electricity consumer and taxpayer. The fact is, Chinese involvement in these projects has come at a cost – a promise to allow an untried Chinese reactor to be built on UK soil at Bradwell, Essex, with CGN in control.
So, in addition to being the majority owner with 66pc of the equity, it hopes to install its own Hualong One reactor design at a site only 50 miles from central London. Whichever way you look at it, if the Bradwell nuclear project goes ahead, it will be a major boost to CGN’s global nuclear expansion ambitions.
Draw a line
While Hinkley C may be too far advanced to stop, cancellation of the Sizewell and Bradwell projects would send a very strong signal to president Xi that trashing the human rights norms of the liberal international order cannot be tolerated. It would also eliminate the security threats that CGN poses if it is allowed to participate in such a strategically vital industry as power supply.
Since the capture of power by Xi in 2012/13, and his subsequent confirmation (much like Vladimir Putin) as long-term ruler, much has changed. The CCP now seems to be a danger to many Chinese people as much as to those elsewhere. The events in Hong Kong provide an opening for governments to underline for China’s rulers what constitutes acceptable human rights behaviour. In blocking further Chinese participation in new nuclear energy, the British government has an opportunity to both demonstrate that, post-Brexit, it is still a global player and, in the process, save billions in taxpayers’ money.
Prof Jeffrey Henderson, of the University of Bristol, is vice-chairman of COST China in Europe research network. Dr Paul Dorfman, of UCL, chairs the Nuclear Consulting Group.