Britain’s government approved a $24 billion nuclear reactor Thursday after imposing “significant new safeguards” to prevent Chinese spying.
British Prime Minister Theresa May had considered canceling the Hinkley Point nuclear plant due to its high costs, and U.S. environmentalist opposition charged the Chinese company behind it with nuclear espionage in August. The project is backed by French power company Électricité de France (EDF) as well as state-controlled Chinese companies.
A columnist for a Chinese state-run media outlet called May’s reluctance to approve of the Hinkley Point nuclear power project a result of “China-phobia.”About one third of the project will be paid for by the state-owned China General Nuclear Power. May delayed the plant’s approval after U.S. officials charged the same company with nuclear espionage.
China’s ambassador to Great Britain issued an ultimatum over the delay earlier in August, 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.
EDF agreed in July to build the Hinkley Point nuclear reactors by 2025 after years of delays. If the reactors aren’t built, U.K. taxpayers could be on the hook for $31.6 billion, 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.
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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