UK laments nuclear no-show by China

British media believe Chinese investment alone can ensure construction of a new generation of nuclear power stations in the country.

The British media are lamenting a “blow” to the UK nuclear programme after China apparently dropped out of the race to build £30 billion worth of reactors in the country.

China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, in consortium with French firm Areva, had been widely tipped as bidders for the Horizon nuclear power joint venture, which was abandoned by German energy companies E.On and RWE in March. 

But the Financial Times reported that by Friday last week – the deadline for submissions from prospective buyers – the group had failed to table a bid. China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation, though touted as a possible partner for reactor developer Westinghouse, was also absent from the final list of contenders.

The FT called the news a “blow for Britain’s nuclear revival” and said the “lack of participation by the Beijing-backed groups” raised questions about how the country could take its nuclear programme forward: “Some industry experts believe only Chinese companies have the financial firepower to shoulder the immense cost of building new reactors,” the newspaper said.

Its sentiments were echoed by The Telegraph, which said the Areva-China Guangdong consortium had been seen as “one of the most credible” bidders for the programme and that people would be left asking who would “bank-roll” the UK’s plans for nuclear reactors.

As discussed before on chinadialogue, China has quickly come to be seen as vital to the future of the nuclear industry. The Chinese nuclear sector is still in its relative infancy (only 1.85% of the country’s electricity came from this source in 2011). But China’s growing financial clout, combined with an apparent commitment to continue building nuclear on a large-scale even as others reconsider their positions, has led a nuclear industry struggling to re-orientate post-Fukushima to pin its hopes on Beijing.

And it’s not just the UK, explained Antony Froggatt in a June chinadialogue article “Chinese nuclear goes global?”, pointing out that Turkey, South Africa and Saudi Arabia were among the countries waiting to hear on possible nuclear deals with China:

The global clout of China’s nuclear sector is such that the impacts of its decisions stretch far beyond the nation’s borders. From France to Namibia, from reactor designers to uranium-mining firms, the industry will be waiting anxiously for news from China.

But the idea that China’s own nuclear plans are stable enough to warrant this global obsession is questionable. As Cui Zheng pointed out in “Public fears check Chinese nuclear”, policymakers in China are dealing with many of the same hurdles as other countries – public confidence, regulatory risks – and a post-Fukushima construction pause has taken its toll:

Policymakers are acutely aware of the public’s concerns. Around the world, whether or not to press ahead with new nuclear has become a deeply politicised question, and with China in the midst of a leadership change, officials are being cautious.

And so the nuclear industry has been left to stew. Gu Zhongmao, deputy head of the technology committee at the China Institute of Atomic Energy, said nuclear equipment suppliers had been worst hit by the standstill. A stop on their business operations of more than a year has left these players in dire straits. Overseas suppliers have also been affected: Chinese firms are attempting to cancel contracts for equipment for shelved plants under force majeure clauses…International mediation is being used to resolve the disputes. 

Nuclear safety worries return

Chinese disinterest won’t have been the only thing on the minds of European nuclear planners this week. A leaked version of an official safety report, due out tomorrow, suggests almost all of the continent’s existing nuclear plants have safety failings – and it could cost 25 billion euros to fix them, according to the BBC.

The investigation by the European Commission was launched after the reactor meltdown at Fukushima in March 2011, and “stress tested” the continent’s existing plants. According to the leaks, it has concluded that almost all of Europe’s on-line reactors need upgrading to be able to deal with disasters like floods.

Image credit: Michael Kappel via Flickr