Chinese reactor draws mixed reaction in UK


Nuclear power

Chinese reactor draws mixed reaction in UK

MARIKO KODAKI, Nikkei staff writer

China General Nuclear Power, a state-owned company, will take a one-third stake in a nuclear power project at Hinkley Point in Somerset, U.K.

HINKLEY POINT, U.K. — A British power station will host the first Chinese-designed nuclear reactor in a developed country, drawing both praise and criticism from citizens.

On Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached agreements on Chinese participation in a number of nuclear power and other high-profile projects.

The most prominent deal signed will see a cutting-edge Hualong One reactor built at the Bradwell nuclear power station in southeastern England. The reactor was designed by several Chinese companies, including state-owned China General Nuclear Power, which has nuclear licensed technology from France. The reactor will be built jointly with French energy company Electricite de France.

An agreement was also reached with EDF for Chinese companies to fund part of the Hinkley Point power station in England’s southwest. China General will contribute 6 billion pounds ($9.36 billion) to the project in exchange for a 33.5% stake.

Environmental activists and other antinuclear protesters have responded by launching a campaign against the plan. A 38-year-old activist who had been at Hinkley Point since Oct. 19 accused the government of introducing risky technology. The protesters argue Downing Street should not let Beijing determine British nuclear energy policy.

Jobs, jobs, jobs?

Others living near the plant were pleased by the announcement. Engineer Eddie Higgins, 58, said he was glad to hear he may finally start earning money again.

Things have been slow at Hinkley Point for some time. Some obsolete 1960s-era facilities have been torn down, but the plant operator has been unable to build new ones due to a lack of funds. No construction has taken place since the spring because EDF, which is responsible for the project, has been struggling to restructure its business.

The injection of Chinese money and construction of the U.K.’s first new nuclear facility in 30 years, which is expected to start within several weeks, will be a big boost to the community.

Some residents, however, are worried about the long-term effects.

Higgins, whose son and grandson are also engineers, is concerned that once the new facility goes online, the Chinese company will send its own engineers and executives to run it. He said he is worried that there will be nothing left for Britain —  no technology or human resources — once it starts becoming dependent on overseas operators for essential infrastructure such as nuclear power.

Close call

According to the latest poll by the environmental group Greenpeace, 29% of those surveyed supported the Hinkley project, with 34% opposed. Those who are against the plan say they are concerned about the safety and security of the project. That sense of vulnerability is the downside of the influx of Chinese money into the British economy.

India-based Tata Steel announced Tuesday plans to shut down several plants in the U.K. and cut the payroll by roughly 1,200. The downsizing is widely attributed to a surge in Chinese steel imports into Europe. In addition to Tata, two other steelmakers have eliminated several thousand jobs over the past month.

Amid mounting criticism over alleged dumping of steel, “China has taken a series of steps to reduce excess capacity,” Xi said at the post-summit news conference.

Britain has enjoyed steady growth by attracting skilled workers, goods and money from around the world through open trade and foreign investment policies instituted by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

But that openness has also made the U.K. more sensitive to economic fluctuations overseas. Britain’s gross domestic product is forecast to grow at a 2.4% pace in 2015, the fastest of any G-7 country. But the biggest source of this growth is not improved productivity but higher asset prices, which have risen due to the inflow of capital from overseas.