British critic questions role of Chinese nuclear power companies

Adviser to British government worried about the lack of transparency in Chinese nuclear industry, which will take stakes in power projects

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 October, 2013, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 2:29am

One of Britain's leading nuclear engineering consultants has raised serious concerns about the safety implications of handing over some of Britain's nuclear plants to Chinese operators.

John Large, a government adviser, said he felt uncomfortable with the lack of transparency around the Chinese atomic industry, which has been drafted in to help the UK by finance minister George Osborne during his trade mission to China.

Osborne gave the green light to Chinese nuclear firms taking majority stakes in the UK's next generation of nuclear plants during a visit to the Taishan nuclear plant in Guangdong on the final day of his visit to China on Thursday.

The first deal is likely to be unveiled next week, with China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) taking a minority stake with the main operator, France's EDF, to build the new Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset, southwest England. No UK firms are involved.

Large, who has advised the UK government on nuclear issues, said: "We can see that even with the French operatorship of UK nuclear power stations [through EDF] that there are differences in the regulatory regimes in France and the UK.

"But these problems would be much more profound with the Chinese, who like the Russians, are rooted in a government system without independent [safety] regulators," he said.

Large said it would be quite easy to supervise a US company working in Britain because they were used to operating under the American safety regime, which is noted for its openness.

But he said he was very wary of the "totally non-transparent" Chinese regulatory system.

Large feared that the Treasury's enthusiasm for winning and keeping foreign investment might mean pressure being brought to bear on the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation to gloss over problems encountered with a Chinese operator.

The reaction from Large comes after Osborne endorsed Chinese firms' purchase of stakes in British reactors, including majority ownership.

The Treasury said: "While any initial Chinese stake in a nuclear-power project is likely to be a minority stake, over time stakes in subsequent new power stations could be majority stakes."

Any investment from any country has to comply with rigorous regulatory standards for safety and security

But it added: "Any investment from any country has to comply with rigorous regulatory standards for safety and security."

The government is expected to agree a deal over a generous 35-year subsidy regime to enable EDF and CGNPC to proceed with a new Hinkley C reactor.

The concerns came as a report showed that China has the least transparent companies operating in the major emerging economies of Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa.

In a survey of 75 companies by Transparency International, Chinese firms were the least likely to publish financial information and vital details about corporate structure that allows them to be held to account.