Why Britain is building, with China’s help, a new nuclear power plant

The UK announced plans Thursday to build its first nuclear plant in two decades as part of the plan to meet global climate targets. But amid security concerns, the Hinkley Point C plan has brought up questions about the role of nuclear energy in combatting climate change.

Andrew Matthews//Press Association/AP/File
General view of Hinkley Point A Magnox nuclear power station in Somerset, England, July 2016. French energy company EDF is due to decide whether to go ahead with a major nuclear power plant project in southwest England that some consider too costly.

Britain's plan to build its first nuclear plant in two decades finally got a green light following the uncertainty cast by Brexit. But it comes with wariness over foreign control of a critical infrastructure and skepticism about its effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions – even as supporters tout the benefits of the low-carbon source of energy.

The project, known as Hinkley Point C, will be funded by the China General Nuclear Power Corporation, a state-backed Chinese investor, and built by EDF, a French utility company that is largely state-owned. According to Bloomberg, the price tag of the project is expected to reach $23.6 billion. The plant is set to generate electricity for an area twice the size of London and reduce emissions by 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, helping the UK to meet its climate targets.

“This also marks the next generation of nuclear power in Britain, which has an important part to play in contributing to our future energy needs and our longer term security of supply,” former prime minister David Cameron said of the plan in a press release two years ago when the plan was first conceived.

But critics are wary of placing a critical infrastructure – especially a nuclear power plant – in the hands of foreign companies, especially with Chinese companies that could be vulnerable to alleged state-sponsored hackers. The cost of the plant, which may potentially be the most expensive in Britain's history, also has some worried. Others are concerned about nuclear waste disposal, as revealed by a recent BBC investigation of improperly stored radioactive material in a rundown nuclear site. The cost and associated hazards, some argue, are not worth it when there are cheaper and safer alternatives such as renewable energy.

The controversies stirred by the plan might not be felt by the UK alone. Nuclear energy is increasingly being discussed as a solution to reducing carbon emissions. Renewable energy input can be intermittent and unable to meet the electricity demand, while nuclear can provide a steady load. But these discussions trigger anxiety especially after the 2015 plant meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan. Nuclear power plants can pose security concerns, nuclear waste can be improperly disposed and cause health hazards, and nuclear plant construction is notorious for cost overruns and delays.

Some countries remain undeterred. For example, a number of African nations, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, are considering nuclear energy to address shortage of electricity, despite infrastructure difficulties faced by some countries. The United States has a growing movement pushing for nuclear energy, with both leading presidential candidates supporting the notion.

Other countries are taking the opposite tack. Germany, for instance, chose to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 and to rely on coal energy while it transitions to renewable energy.

Leading climate scientist James Hansen argued in an opinion piece for The Guardian last year that nuclear power is a “uniquely scalable and environmentally advantageous” solution to dealing with climate change.

“Nuclear energy can power whole civilisations, and produce waste streams that are trivial compared to the waste produced by fossil fuel combustion.… However, nuclear does pose unique safety and proliferation concerns that must be addressed with strong and binding international standards and safeguards,” he wrote.

Jacopo Buongiorno, associate head at MIT’s department of nuclear science and engineering, said in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor that while the biggest challenge in expanding nuclear energy is the cost, it is still the most reliable zero-carbon emission source. It is also proven to be safe, with standards tightened after the Fukushima incident.

“Nuclear and renewables complement each other well,” Buongiorno says. “Nuclear is baseload and renewable is intermittent.”

As for concerns about countries under-equipped to manage nuclear plants, Buongiorno says there are partnerships between countries, such as South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, that allow them to share resources and knowledge.

On the other hand are those who find nuclear power plants too expensive or too slow to build. There is also the challenge of dealing with radioactive nuclear waste, of which there are concerns about the potential for reprocessed waste to be turned into nuclear weapons and, in the United States, locating a long term repository for the fuel.  

“If you’re thinking about climate change as an urgent threat, something to deal with as soon as possible, then nuclear power will not be a good strategy,” M.V. Ramana, an associate research scholar at the Princeton Nuclear Futures Laboratory, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “If you’re serious about mitigating climate change you have to evolve a strategy that is economic and realistic.”

Dr. Ramana recommends developing renewable energy such as solar and wind, storage technology, improving efficiency standards, and increasing flexibility of consumer energy usage instead as more effective solutions.

For the UK, its decision to go with nuclear by building this plant and phase out coal by 2025 was a tough one.

The Hinkley Point C plan was signed on by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013 but its status came into question over security concerns after the Brexit vote. In July this year, the new prime minister Theresa May made a surprising decision to hold the project for review hours before the contract was to be signed, Time reports.

Thursday's decision to approve the plan comes with the government’s assurance of safeguards that will prevent the foreign companies involved in the construction to gain control of the power plant without government approval.

“Having thoroughly reviewed the proposal 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,” said UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark in a press release. “Britain needs to upgrade its supplies of energy, and we have always been clear that nuclear is an important part of ensuring our future low-carbon energy security.”

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