Ian Williams Ian Williams

The troubling truth about Britain’s nuclear deal with China

[Getty Images]

The most shocking thing about the news that the government is looking to remove China from Britain’s nuclear power programme is that it has taken so long. But it will not be a straight-forward process. It will likely provoke tantrums from Beijing, as well as grumbles from a nuclear lobby that will have to find somebody else to stump up the billions needed for their pet projects.

China General Nuclear should never have been allowed anywhere near such a critical piece of national infrastructure. The state-owned company has been accused by the US government of stealing technology for military use and placed on a national security blacklist which severely limits US companies from doing business with it. Washington has warned Britain against partnering with the company.

More recently CGN has shown a lack of transparency over technical issues at a major nuclear plant in Guangdong province, less than 100 miles from Hong Kong. That we know the Taishan plant has issues at all is down to the junior French partner EDF, which was required to inform the US authorities when it sought technical assistance. It reportedly warned of an ‘imminent radiological event’ and said the Chinese safety authority was raising the acceptable limits for radiation detection outside the plant to avoid having to shut it down.

This month EDF forced an extraordinary board meeting in Taishan in an effort to get to the bottom of what it called an ‘evolving’ issue. In a statement after the meeting, EDF said that in France it would have shut down the reactor for further investigation, but in China that decision lies with CGN, which is continuing operations. Since June, when the problem emerged, CGN has remained largely silent, the plant issuing bland statements of reassurance that all is ‘normal’.

If Britain excludes China from its nuclear programme, the gloves may well come off

On a technical level, the issue appears to be centred on a small number of damaged fuel rods, and cannot be compared with the Chernobyl meltdown, but the opaque way in which it has been handled by CGN is right out of the corrupt, secretive playbook of the bureaucrats who oversaw the nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

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