Britain on Tuesday removed China General Nuclear from building its new Sizewell C plant, announcing it would take a joint stake alongside French partner EDF as relations with Beijing sour.
CGN’s announcement came after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned that the “golden era” of UK-China ties was “over” and said the Asian giant posed a “systemic challenge” to UK interests and values.
Tuesday’s news also comes amid a diplomatic storm that has developed over the arrest and alleged assault of a BBC journalist covering widespread protests against Covid restrictions in a rare defiance of Chinese authorities.
Sunak’s conservative government divests CGN of its controversial 20 percent stake in Sizewell and forms a joint venture with EDF.
The United Kingdom will invest 700 million pounds ($843 million) in the project, a figure that was agreed with EDF.
Sizewell C, which is under development off the Suffolk coast in eastern England, will contain two EPR or European Pressurized Reactors that will power the equivalent of around six million homes.
It is expected to start producing electricity from 2035.
Nuclear and renewable energy sources such as offshore wind are seen as key to boosting Britain’s energy security after Russia’s invasion of key producer Ukraine drove up gas and electricity bills across Europe.
EDF, which is in the process of being fully nationalized amid a worsening energy crisis in the region, confirmed on Tuesday that it was still working with CGN to build the Hinkley Point plant in southwest England.
Hinkley, which has been plagued by delays and rising costs, will be Britain’s first new nuclear power station in more than two decades and aims to supply seven per cent of Britain’s electricity needs.
However, Tuesday’s news further limits Britain’s ties to the world’s second-largest economy.
London last month ordered a Chinese-owned company to lay off most of Britain’s biggest semiconductor maker – a leading industrial asset – following a national security investigation.
And in 2020, Chinese telecom giant Huawei was banned from rolling out the country’s superfast 5G broadband network following US spying concerns.
“The UK’s stake in Sizewell C is positioned at the heart of the UK’s new energy sovereignty plan,” the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said in a statement.
The move “also allows for China General Nuclear’s exit from the project, including buyout costs, any tax liabilities and commercial arrangements,” it added.
The UK says Sizewell will deliver cleaner energy than fossil fuels and create 10,000 jobs for the local area and national economy.
Greenpeace’s UK policy director Doug Parr, however, strongly criticized the nuclear push.
“Several academic institutes have shown that we can have a 100 percent renewable system that would be cheaper than those based on nuclear or fossil fuels,” Parr said.
“And it has the added benefit of not creating millennial concerns about nuclear waste for future generations to deal with.”
Local campaigner Stop Sizewell C added that the project “could neither reduce energy bills nor give the UK energy independence” and would cost “a huge amount of money”.
UK support ‘essential’
The news meanwhile comes as some of EDF’s EPR nuclear reactors have been plagued by maintenance problems and delays.
“The UK government’s support through its direct involvement … is essential” for Sizewell, EDF Energy chief executive Simone Rossi told AFP in an interview.
“This decision is a sign of confidence in the nuclear industry — and in the French nuclear industry.
Business and Energy Secretary Grant Shapps said Sizewell would move Britain “towards greater energy independence and away from the risks that come with dependence on volatile global energy markets for our supply”.
The UK has 15 nuclear reactors at eight sites, but many are nearing the end of their lives.
Sizewell consists of two power plants: Sizewell A, which opened in the 1960s and closed in 2006. Sizewell B, which opened in 1995, is still in operation.
Britain is turning to new plants, too, to help meet its long-term goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The government added on Tuesday that it would create Great British Nuclear, a body to oversee the development of multiple projects.
The Sunak administration has meanwhile partially subsidized household energy bills — which have pushed UK inflation to a 41-year high — to ease the cost-of-living crisis.