Once considered a vital part of Britain’s clean-energy future, the beleaguered Hinkley Point nuclear plant project looked further than ever from becoming reality this week as a row erupted between the three countries developing the massive facility: the United Kingdom, France, and China.
Originally launched in 2013, Hinkley Point is projected to cost 18 billion pounds ($23.2 billion) and will supply power at $119.40 per megawatt-hour—more than twice the price of wholesale electricity in Britain today. British officials have raised concerns over the involvement of China General Nuclear Power Company (CGNPC), the state-owned nuclear giant putting up one-third of the project’s cost, in light of the indictment of a Chinese-American nuclear engineer charged with spying for the company. Allen Ho, a naturalized American citizen, was charged in April with “conspiracy to unlawfully engage and participate in the production and development of special nuclear material outside the United States, without the required authorization from the U.S. Department of Energy.”
Ho’s alleged corporate espionage on behalf of China General Nuclear has given rise to dark fears of a Chinese “back door” into the operations of the U.K. grid. Security concerns were reportedly the reason behind new prime minister Theresa May’s decision last month to freeze the Hinkley Point project until a review of the deal is completed. A May aide wrote an op-ed warning that foreign owners of British nuclear facilities could “build weaknesses into computer systems that will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will.”
China, which hopes to become the world’s leading supplier of nuclear power technology, responded angrily to the Hinkley Point pause. China’s ambassador to London wrote in an op-ed piece in the Financial Times that “China-UK relations are at critical historical juncture,” and that cancellation of the nuclear station could threaten up to 100 billion pounds in future investments.
The French government of François Hollande has also wavered in its support of the project. Trade union leaders have charged that the costly nuclear behemoth could threaten the financial viability of the state-owned utility, EDF, which is slated to build the Hinkley Point station. EDF’s chief financial officer has already resigned in protest over the project.
Beyond conspiracy theories and diplomatic wrangling, the real problem with Hinkley Point is that it just doesn’t make sense, economically or technologically. The plant is to be powered by European Pressurized Reactors, which are essentially an updated version of conventional 1970s-era nuclear technology. There are four EPRs currently under construction, two in China and one each in France and Finland. All have run into massive cost overruns and delays. Basing the future of the British power sector on such huge and outdated plants looks increasingly misguided—especially when new, more compact, and safer reactor designs are becoming available. Some of these designs are coming out of China.
The era of gigantic, centralized power plants is receding as distributed wind and solar arrays, smaller reactors, and energy storage all become cheaper and more widely available. “In a world moving towards cheaper, flexible, decentralized power systems, investing in eye-wateringly expensive, always-on ‘base-load’ plants increasingly looks like a 20th Century solution for a 21st Century problem,” wrote Richard Black, director of the London-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.
The influential newsmagazine The Economist also this week called for a halt to Hinkley Point. “Regardless of security worries about China, which are probably overblown, the Hinkley plan looks extraordinarily bad value for money … Britain should pull out of the deal.”