China Gives Britain Ultimatum Over Nuclear Plant Closure

(REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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China’s ambassador to Great Britain issued an ultimatum Monday over the U.K.’s plans to stop building a planned nuclear reactor.

“Right now, the China-U.K. relationship is at a crucial historical juncture,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, wrote Monday in The Financial Times.”I hope the U.K. will keep its door open to China and that the British government will continue to support Hinkley Point — and come to a decision as soon as possible so that the project can proceed smoothly.”

The Hinkley Point nuclear plant is a joint venture between a Chinese state-owned company and a U.K. utility. British Prime Minister Theresa May is considering canceling the project due to its high costs and opposition from environmentalists. The French nuclear giant Electricite de France (EDF) agreed in July to build the Hinkley Point nuclear reactor by 2025, after years of delays and environmental opposition.

Liu pointed out that Chinese companies have invested more in the U.K. over the past five years than in France, Germany and Italy combined, and that 3 percent of the U.K.’s exports flow to China.

U.K. taxpayers could have been stuck paying $31.6 billion if the reactors had been blocked for political reasons, according to released government documents. EDF is moving ahead despite the company’s serious financial problems and the project’s credit rating is below investment grade.

EDF repeatedly delayed making a decision about whether or not to build the nuclear plant before finally approving it after already investing $2.85 billion. EDF is more than $40 billion in debt and has a history of abandoning or delaying similar reactors in France.

The company’s decision infuriated environmentalists, with Greenpeace calling the Hinkley Point reactors “a suicidal project for EDF,” and announcing that the company “shoots [itself] in the foot” by not investing in wind and solar power instead.

The plant has been subject to intense opposition by environmentalist members of the British Parliament, even though they passed the government’s environmental review process. The U.K. government licensed the project in 2012, but environmental and financial concerns kept the project in the planning stage for years. Nuclear power is on the decline in Britain, and the country has started decommissioning reactors to comply with environmentalist pressures.

The wind power, which environmentalists want to use to replace the U.K.’s reactors, is nearly four times as expensive as electricity from existing nuclear power plants, according to analysis from the pro-industry Institute for Energy Research. The rising cost of subsidies is passed to ordinary ratepayers, which has triggered complaints that poor households are subsidizing the affluent.

The proposed nuclear plant would include two European Pressurized Reactors that generate 3,200 megawatts of electricity. This type of reactor has a long history of cost overruns, delays, bad management and legal difficulties. However, the proposed reactors could supply up to 7 percent of the U.K.’s electricity and the government claims they are essential for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

A 2012 YouGov poll showed 63 percent of U.K. respondents agreed nuclear reactors should be part of the country’s energy mix, up from 61 percent in 2010. Opposition to nuclear power fell to 11 percent from 15 percent.

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