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British nuclear deal opens new fronts for China atom firms



Two Chinese firms' role in building Britain's first new atomic power station for a generation will give them new-found credibility as they seek a bigger share of the trillion-dollar global civil nuclear market, analysts say.

The $26 billion deal to build Hinkley Point C, a two-reactor, 3.2 gigawatt station in southwestern England, was unveiled earlier this week and is led by French energy giant EDF.

But China's state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp (CGN) and China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) will have a 30 to 40 percent stake between them.
The project will give them "the opportunity to gain experience in the UK and will support their long-term objective of becoming established nuclear developers in the UK", the consortium said in a joint statement.

It comes after UK Chancellor George Osborne said last week that Britain will allow Chinese firms to take majority stakes in nuclear power projects in the future.

But Hinkley Point could also open gateways beyond Britain.

The total worldwide nuclear market is expected to boom in coming decades, despite the setback of Japan's Fukushima disaster.

At present, the world's nuclear capacity stands at 371 gigawatts (GW) spread across 435 reactors, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, its Vienna-based regulator.

According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, that is expected to rise to 580 GW by 2035, an increase of more than 56 percent.

"I think China sees its engagement within the UK as an opportunity both to gain experience but also potentially as a showcase for future projects, either domestically within the UK or in other export countries," Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at Chatham House told AFP.

China suffers heavily from pollution created by its reliance on coal, and its own nuclear sector is the fastest-growing in the world, with 18 reactors in operation, 29 under construction and more being planned.

But so far, Chinese reactor exports have been limited to one power station under construction in Pakistan.

Zhou Xizhou, head of China energy for consultancy IHS Global Insight said of the Hinkley Point deal: "As Chinese companies accumulate experience in different parts of the world, it would boost their credibility in other parts of the world."

"Large Chinese companies all have go-abroad strategies," he added. "If they have an opportunity in nuclear, they would obviously want to grasp it; it's not very easy because nuclear is strictly regulated anywhere in the world, and more strictly than conventional power."

EDF and French nuclear specialist AREVA, which is also part of the Hinkley Point consortium, are already working with CGN on developing a third-generation Franco-Chinese reactor design, a project that prompted allegations they were giving away secret technology and a ministerial inquiry.

EDF and CGN are already building two of the French firms' European Pressurised Reactors at Taishan, in southern China.

Each company's role exact role at Hinkley Point remains unclear.

But when the UK Chancellor George Osborne visited Taishan on a trip to China last week he said that Britain would welcome majority investments by Chinese firms in nuclear projects in the future.

"If it wasn't for Chinese investment it would have to be British taxpayers' investment," he reportedly told the BBC.

Froggatt said that Britain was "at the extreme" when it came to allowing foreign participation in its energy sector.

"The question of foreign engagement within critical infrastructures does vary very much from country to country," he said.

"For the UK government perspective, they are comfortable with that, a market-led perspective."

Atomic energy's worldwide standing took a severe knock with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Tokyo has since mothballed all its 50 operational reactors, and Berlin has said it will shut down all of Germany's.

Ed Davey, Britain's energy secretary, stressed that Chinese firms would have to meet "stringent regulatory and safety requirements" a stance which could reassure other future potential clients.

China has never had a serious nuclear accident, but anti-atomic campaign groups say that it has weak safety regulatory mechanisms, with Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative ranking it 27th among 32 countries in terms of nuclear security measures.

Nonetheless, Zhou pointed out: "The nuclear industry is very different compared with commercial oil or gas power sectors, since IAEA has regular inspections and there are internationally accepted protocols for all the civilian nuclear power stations around the world even in China.

"The IAEA standards are pretty uniform, wherever you are."

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