The delay by the UK Government in signing off the first new nuclear plant in a decade has fuelled much speculation as to the reasons why. Maybe we should just take the newly formed Government at its word when it states that it remains committed to a new nuclear programme and that the additional time is needed for the new leadership to familiarise itself with a very large and complex infrastructure project. It makes perfect sense.
However, the hiatus has led to numerous speculations including some unhelpful assertions that we should be concerned about the Chinese investment element in the deal.
Here are four reasons why the opposite is the case:
1. China has been operating civil nuclear plants for the last 30 years – with an impeccable safety record. A 2010 safety review by the IAEA identified good practices within China’s regulatory system. It said that leadership expressed high-level commitment to nuclear safety and its regulation, and the cultural environment that exists turns such commitments into practical activities. The team also noted the extensive use of IAEA safety standards in the development of China’s legislative framework. It also said that China had in place a system for registering a cadre of high level nuclear safety engineers[i].
2. China is building nuclear plants to time and budget at international safety standards. In China there are currently over 20 new nuclear power stations under construction. China is also the country where, in partnership with EdF, China General Nuclear Corporation (CGN) is building two EPR reactors. The project is in its final stages and has entered its testing phase and is being completed to time and budget. The partnership between EdF and CGN goes back nearly 30 years to the first nuclear reactor in China at Daya Bay which was built by EdF in partnership with CGN and which has an outstanding performance and safety record to this day. Bringing the Chinese into the UK will enable EdF to learn much needed lessons from China which can then be applied to the UK project to avoid needless delays or budget overruns.
3. Partnering with the Chinese on civil nuclear projects will open up significant opportunities for UK firms not only in the UK but also in China and third country markets. Companies like CGN clearly understand they will need to partner with UK firms and draw on their expertise and have shown willing to cement these partnerships not just for an individual project but also for future projects in China and countries where they operate. The UK nuclear industry will bring long-standing expertise to the partnership and in turn harness economic benefit which will be felt by the whole of the UK economy. 60% of the cost of Hinkley Point C will be spent with UK firms.
4. The UK regulatory system and its civil nuclear safety and security inspectorate are world class. Some of the recent assertions that for example that the Chinese could use their role to build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will are more the stuff of Hollywood movie material rather than informed by facts or reality.
Firstly, this would assume China controls most or all of the UK energy production which is and will never be the case. The UK’s energy security policy is structured around the fact that we have a broad varied supply portfolio. Nuclear power stations are switched off all the time for all sorts of reasons – such as maintenance and refuelling – which the system allows for. The only ones who suffer detriment are those owning the plant as they would not receive any revenues!
Secondly, if such a case were ever to occur and made public this would forever damage global opportunities for China or any other country who were engaged in such action.
Finally, and most importantly, it makes a mockery of the UK regulatory system and our world class nuclear regulators by assuming that the regulators would not be able to identify such inbuilt weaknesses. There are very strict controls on precisely who in the UK operates nuclear plants. The UK nuclear regulators have in place wide ranging safety and security inspections at every stage from construction through to operation taking into account the most extreme of possible threats.
In summary, I believe we should welcome Chinese investment, harness the opportunities it provides, be confident we may actually see new plants being built to time and budget without compromising safety and security and most importantly trust our regulatory system and those charged with enforcing it to continue their outstanding job which has led to the UK operating civil nuclear plants at the highest safety and security standard.
Nuclear Futures Limited
[i] World Nuclear News 2 August 2010