China’s investments in the UK’s nuclear energy sector are not a national security risk, the boss of the country’s leading trade body has argued, as long as Beijing-linked firms are not involved in running power plants.
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, told City A.M. he did not see any issues with state-backed China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) owning a one-third stake in under-construction power plant Hinkley Point C.
“It doesn’t necessarily follow that involvement from China would create security concerns,” he said, while acknowledging any geopolitical issues were “way above my pay grade.”
In his view, Chinese companies owning stakes in projects were only a problem if they had strategic roles in power plants.
“It [CGN] is still a significant but minority shareholder in Hinkley Point C, but there’s no Chinese technology,” Greatrex explained.
Hinkley Point C’s majority owner is the French energy giant EDF, which will operate the power station based on a European pressurised reactor design.
Similar reactors are already installed at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in the Guangdong province of China – which is also co-owned by CGN and EDF.
However, the Taishan plant has been plagued with issues since construction, with one of its units shut down for over a year of repairs fix issues with fuel rod cladding and outages before becoming online again.
CGN workers are currently helping to oversee the installation of both reactors at the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C plant, which will power six million homes when it is finally completed in 2028 at a cost of £33bn.
Greatrex did not believe this presented “any national security concerns,” and instead considered their presence to be “a good thing,” as CGN would help with bringing the reactor design into operation in the UK.
The nuclear energy sector was ultimately required to work within the conditions established by government, he argued.
Greatrex said: “The industry will work with whatever the framework is to deliver the project. That’s what the industry is most interested in, and most capable of contributing to.”
His comments reflect an apparent softening in the government’s position on Chinese investment.
Last week, Foreign Secretary James Cleverley made the first official visit to China from a frontbench minister in five years, with the government confirming it is prepared to work with the country on both investment and energy policy concerning climate change.
It also follows former Energy Secretary Grant Shapps making a distinction between China investing in energy projects and the risks of data-sharing, at the launch of industry vehicle GB Nuclear in July.
He said he was still open to “pure investment” in national infrastructure as long as it was not a security risk.
This contrasts with the hawkish approach Shapps initially engaged in, when he opted to buy out CGN’s minority stake in Sizewell C for around £100m last year in his early days as minister.
Former BEIS Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng even changed the model for funding nuclear power projects to reduce the influence of overseas partners in the energy mix such as China.
Any potential government reappraisal of its position on China highlights the challenge it has has in ramping up nuclear energy generation from 15 to 25 per cent of the country’s supply mix as part of its energy security ambitions – with 85 per cent of its ageing fleet set to go offline in the next 12 years.
The government recently defended the use of Chinese monopiles in a key offshore wind farm, which could power 1.3m homes, when criticised by MPs last week over potential energy security concerns – as first reported by City A.M.