Why Britain Is Building, with China's Help, a New Nuclear Power Plant

By Tan, Zhai Yun | The Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

Why Britain Is Building, with China's Help, a New Nuclear Power Plant


Tan, Zhai Yun, The Christian Science Monitor


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.... …

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