British PM Delays Nuclear Plant As Chinese Backer Is Accused Of Espionage

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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The prime minister of the United Kingdom wrote a letter to Chinese leaders easing their concerns after the British government put a joint nuclear plant project on hold to to possible espionage.

Prime Minister Theresa May wrote that she “looks forward to strengthening cooperation with China on trade and business and on global issues” and assured China its money is still welcomed in Britain, Chinese officials who received the letter told Reuters.

“This is part of what you’d expect the Prime Minister to do in terms of our relations with the wider world. It’s all part of Britain remaining an outward-looking country as we head toward Brexit,” a source in May’s office told Reuters.

May considered canceling the Hinkley Point nuclear plant due to its high costs and environmentalist opposition before the Chinese company behind the project was charged with nuclear espionage by the U.S. government in August. The project is being backed by French power company EDF, the China General Nuclear Power Corporation and the China National Nuclear Corporation.

U.S. officials charged the state-owned China General Nuclear Power with espionage in early August as part of a conspiracy to produce special nuclear material without the approval of the U.S. federal government.

China’s ambassador to Great Britain issued an ultimatum over the delay, pointing out Chinese companies have invested more in the U.K. over the past five years than in France, Germany and Italy combined. British exports to China have grown 57 percent since 2010, and China is expected to be Britain’s second-largest foreign investor by 2020.

“Right now, the China-U.K. relationship is at a crucial historical juncture,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, recently wrote 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.”

EDF agreed in July to build the Hinkley Point nuclear reactors by 2025 after years of delays. U.K. taxpayers were nearly on the hook for $31.6 billion if the reactors continued to be blocked, according to documents released by the government. EDF is still planning to build the reactors, despite the company’s serious financial problems and the fact that the project is below investment grade.

EDF previously delayed making a decision several times 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.

Environmental groups are infuriated by the company’s decision and the fact that the British government hasn’t wholly denounced the project. Greenpeace called 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 EDF passed the government’s environmental review process in 2012. Nuclear power is on the decline in Britain, and the country has started decommissioning reactors to comply with environmentalist pressures.

The proposed nuclear plant would include two new 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.

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