THE REAL PRIZE for China in the United Kingdom’s nuclear industry is not Hinkley Point but the plant at Bradwell that is planned to come after — and all the foreign sales of its new nuclear reactors that may come after that.
China, though the state nuclear company China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), will finance one-third of the £18 billion ($23.5 billion) cost of Hinkley Point C, which will be the UK’s first new nuclear plant in decades. The other two-thirds and the technology will be supplied by the French utility EDF.
The deal gives EDF a showcase that it hopes will offset setbacks in projects in Finland and France for its latest design of reactors, but CGN gets a toehold in western Europe. Bradwell would be built using an indigenously designed Chinese reactor.
It would also be a key early sale in what could be a global export market for, at best guesstimate, at least 130 nuclear power plants. At $15 billion-25 billion each, that adds up to a decent chunk of change. China’s nuclear industry has its eyes firmly on the prize.
Beijing has enthusiastically pursued nuclear power domestically as a low-carbon energy source. As of March, there were 33 nuclear reactors operating in the country, with a total capacity of 28.8GW. A further 22 were under construction with a capacity of 22.1GW. The goal is for nuclear to generate 6% of China’s electricity by 2020, against 2% now.
Other countries are warier of nuclear power, and in particular since the accident at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 (which also caused a temporary suspension of new plant building and approvals in China while new nuclear safety rules were drawn up).
Earlier this month, the new British government of prime minister Theresa May put Hinkley Point on hold for further review.
First, there are the perennial environmental and safety concerns about nuclear energy.
Second, there are concerns about the economics of the deal. The UK government gets out of the upfront building costs and plugs a looming energy shortfall, but it has had to guarantee a price for the electricity Hinckley Point will produce that is twice the current wholesale price — and to do so for 35 years.
In the complex economics of energy pricing that may not prove to be as expensive in the long term as it looks, but the sums — and their underlying assumptions — certainly warrant a second look
Third, May is said to be concerned about China’s involvement, both on grounds of national security and because she has long been critical of the ‘gung-ho’ approach to Britain’s welcoming of Chinese inward investment championed by her predecessor administration of David Cameron and in particular by his finance minister George Osborne.
Osborne and May have long had a distrustful political relationship. Replacing him as finance minister was one of her sets of appointments.
State media have been admonitory of the last-minute delay, saying that cancellation of Hinkley Point could threaten what President Xi Jinping called the ‘Golden Era’ of China-UK investment relations during his state visit to the UK last year. Beijing’s ambassador to Britain, writing in the Financial Times this week, called the times a ‘crucial historical juncture’.
In October last year, before the ‘Brexit’-induced change of prime minister, the UK had reached a strategic investment agreement with China covering three nuclear power plants:
- Hinkley Point C;
- an investment in Sizewell that will also use French EPR reactor technology; and
- Bradwell, whose construction China was expected to lead and which will use Hualong One reactors.
The Hualong One has evolved from upgraded Chinese versions of the French 900MWe class pressurised water reactors already widely in use in China. CGN has developed it jointly (at Beijing’s direction) with China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC).
The Hualong One is considered to be a ‘third-generation-plus’ reactor, which means it complies with the post-Fukushima safety requirements. It is entirely Chinese designed and intended for sale in international markets as well as domestic deployment.
Six are to be built in China, according to CGN. The International Atomic Energy Agency lists three as under construction. The one in Fuqing in Fujian province is shown to the left.
Internationally, two are to be built in Pakistan and a third is planned for Argentina. CNNC chairman Sun Qin has been quoted as saying that China plans to build 30 nuclear power units in countries along its “One Belt, One Road” initiative by 2030.
Bradwell, though, would be the first build in a developed economy. As such, it would be a highly prized sale that China does not want to let slip through its grasp.