OPINION | Chinese Nuclear Renaissance at Hinkley Point: A Perspective

China’s surge towards nuclear energy is not limited to its own borders but has leaped into Europe

By Swati Prabhu
Doctoral Candidate at Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

OPINION | Chinese Nuclear Renaissance at Hinkley Point: A Perspective

Image Attribute: Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Point / Source: The Conversation, Creative Commons

In October 2015, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister), George Osborne unveiled the Chinese interest in financing and funding of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in the southwest of the United Kingdom (UK). In times of nuclear non-proliferation, heightened concerns about nuclear terrorism and public anxiety over nuclear waste, China’s surge towards nuclear energy is not limited to its own borders but has leaped into Europe. The Hinkley Point nuclear power station is a joint £18 billion initiative of China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) and French Électricité de France (EDF) with two EPR (Evolutionary Power Reactors) reactors located in Somerset, England. With this major involvement of China towards the renewed expansion of nuclear industry in Britain, the court is now set to open for debate ‘fuelling concerns’ both on the domestic and international front. After witnessing the Fukushima Daichi mishap in 2011, resulting in acute loss of life and property, the nuclear industry has experienced a severe backlash since then. Even though nuclear energy is considered hazardous considering its radioactive elements, several countries, such as China, France, and United States of America (USA), continue to pursue it by highlighting its role in climate mitigation and the subsequent reduction in carbon footprint. However, there exists another group of countries, such as Germany, Spain, Italy who are in the favor of phasing-out nuclear power. In this context, this recent Chinese involvement in British nuclear industry has raised safety concerns and intensified the debate on its national security. Moreover, this Chinese foray into the European nuclear arena is considered to be one of its kind, since never before had it shown much inclination towards investing in Western nations.

Chinese Civil Nuclear Surge   

To give a brief background, the Chinese nuclear energy industry made its beginning in the form of a military program in the 1950s. It came into prominence in the succeeding decade when the country, one after the other, tested its first atomic bomb in 1964, launched its first missile in 1966 and detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1967. This development helped in establishing a sound nuclear scientific-technological base which ‘serves as a foundation of the Chinese nuclear energy industry even today.’ However, in 1978 a modernization drive began in the country wherein the centrally-planned economy was converted into a more market-driven one. There was a noticeable strategic shift in the form of economic activities being given more precedence as compared to the military activities. This transition from military to civilian also applied to the nuclear energy industry. In May 1982, the Chinese leadership established the Ministry of Nuclear Industry (MNI) from the Second Ministry of Machine Building. This change indicated a shift in policy from the principle of ‘‘military uses first’’ to ‘‘combining military and civilian uses’’. The MNI was subsequently reorganized and renamed as the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) in 1989.  

With the structural and organizational changes in the economic spheres, the civil nuclear industry received an augmented push. The idea of ‘self-reliance first, foreign assistance remains as a supplement” underwent a transformation as China welcomed the principle of ‘from foreign technology transfers to domestic design and production’. Over the years, it has been significantly moving ahead in developing nuclear energy with the assistance of France, Canada, and Russia, though inconsistencies in its technology development strategy and also in execution have also been noticed every now and then. 

However, at present, China is facing a slowdown in its economy which is inadvertently linked to its prospects of achieving energy security. In June 2014, at a high-level meeting of China’s top finance and economics body, President Xi Jinping called for “a sweeping energy revolution in China, centered on five areas: demand, production, technology, institutional governance, and global markets”. This energy revolution is noticeable in the “13th Five-Year Plan” (2016-2020) draft which calls for doubling of China’s operating nuclear generating capacity in the next five years. And if everything goes as per the laid down plan, they are targeting to increase its progress to ten plants a year past 2020.  

The Chinese involvement at Hinkley Point C is driven and dominated by various factors. Firstly, the Chinese nuclear strategy is mutually reinforced by its economic model. A look at their economic model (post the reformation in the late 1970s) over the years shows how the financial system has grown by leaps and bounds as compared to other established economies of the world. However, this progression has also meant disequilibrium in its energy profile. For instance, in 2012, it was found that China produced about 716 million tons of steel, eight times that of USA. This was made possible with the help of large coal. The Chinese economy has been majorly dominated by the industrial sector which runs on coal. It, hence, became imperative for Beijing to use ‘everything but coal’ in order to recover its energy profile. In addition to this, after the recent Paris climate meet and the urgent need to improve its air quality, China is rushing on the track of reducing its emissions from coal-burning generators and employing nuclear reactors or rather helping to set up one, for instance in the UK. Secondly, following the Brexit phenomenon and exit of David Cameroon, Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, took her time to review the Hinkley project before giving a green signal  last month following a new agreement with EDF that introduces new safety checks. This decision came after the British PM met the Chinese President at the G 20 Summit. It has been said that this unexpected review by May was related to the national security implications of Chinese involvement in the Hinkley project ‘at the risk of driving away Chinese investors’. Had May canceled the project, it would have certainly cast a shadow over the credibility of UK as a hub for foreign investment, especially post-Brexit. On the other hand, the Chinese news agency Xinhua cautioned the British government over the delay of this project and raising complicated security issues by digging up old grievances’, for instance the Americans have been wary of Chinese investment fearing cyber espionage and the Australians blocked the sale of S Kidman & Co to a Chinese consortium.

Conclusion  

The Chinese civil nuclear technology has come a long way by slowly transforming itself from previously established as a military program. It currently faces stiff competition in the form of US, Russia, Canada, and France in the nuclear sector. Add to this, the skepticism of utilizing nuclear means after three major disasters in the shape of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, the general public has valid reservations. However, the Chinese leadership seems to understand and acknowledge the importance of nuclear safety, if it has to propel its investment in the West. It needs to be seen how receptive the global players are towards this renewed Chinese nuclear surge taking into account the associated skepticism.   

About the Author:

Swati Prabhu is a Doctoral Candidate at Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

Cite this Article:

Prabhu, S., "OPINION | Chinese nuclear renaissance at Hinkley Point: A Perspective" IndraStra Global Vol. 002, Issue No: 10 (2016) 0027 , http://www.indrastra.com/2016/10/OPINION-Chinese-Nuclear-Renaissance-at-Hinkley-Point-A-Perspective-002-10-2016-0027.html | ISSN 2381-3652 | https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.4012467

AIDN0021020160027 / Chinese nuclear renaissance at Hinkley Point: A Perspective
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IndraStra Global: OPINION | Chinese Nuclear Renaissance at Hinkley Point: A Perspective
OPINION | Chinese Nuclear Renaissance at Hinkley Point: A Perspective
China’s surge towards nuclear energy is not limited to its own borders but has leaped into Europe
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