Britain gives green light to French-Chinese Hinkley Point nuclear station

Hinkley Point

Hinkley Point

The British government said on Thursday that it had given the green light to a controversial new nuclear project at Hinkley Point after Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a review.

The go-ahead for French firm EDF to build the power plant in southwest England, with the help of Chinese funding on Thursday, ended weeks of uncertainty and diplomatic tension over the deal.

“Having thoroughly reviewed the proposals for Hinkley Point C, we will introduce a series of measures to enhance security and will ensure Hinkley cannot change hands without the government’s agreement,” Business Secretary Greg Clark said in a statement.

“Consequently, we have decided to proceed with the first new nuclear power station for a generation,” he added.

EDF’s board approved its participation in the project on July 28, only for Britain’s new government under May to announce hours later that it wanted to review it.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls hailed the breakthrough. “Excellent news for France’s nuclear sector and for jobs in France,” he said on Twitter on Thursday morning.

China has a one-third stake in Hinkley Point, and analysts have warned that Britain would have risked its relations with the world’s second-largest economy if it cancelled the costly deal.

While May’s government has approved the $24 billion project, it insisted on new conditions which would enable it to intervene in the sale of EDF’s controlling stake both prior to and once the plant is operational.

Spying fears

May, a former interior minister, has asked her security advisers to look at the implications of allowing China to invest in the nuclear industry, with the Hinkley deal being seen as a gateway to closer Chinese involvement in British nuclear energy.

According to a former colleague, ex-business minister Vince Cable, May had expressed concern at the “gung-ho” attitude that her predecessor David Cameron took towards courting Chinese investment.

One of May’s top aides, writing last year, said security experts were worried the state-owned Chinese group China General Nuclear Power Corp would in time gain access to computer systems that might allow it to shut down Britain’s energy production one day.

A blueprint for averting such a threat may already exist.

China has a foothold in another key British infrastructure sector through telecoms firm Huawei, which supplies the software and equipment that channels phone calls and data around Britain.

In 2013 then prime minister Cameron ordered a security review into Huawei’s operations and concluded that greater scrutiny was warranted – including allowing Britain’s GCHQ spy agency to take a leading role in senior appointments at a security centre in England where the firm’s technology is vetted.