Tianwan 4 first concrete - 460 (CNNC)The UK government has restarted the country’s long-stalled nuclear power program and French electricity giant EDF will build a new plant. The controversial decision has attracted howls of outrage from some quarters, doubly so because Chinese investors are also being allowed to participate in this landmark project.

The French group will lead the project with an equity stake of around 45-50% in the new Hinkley Point plant,  while the Chinese will be a  close second with 30-40%, shared between China General Nuclear Corp and China National Nuclear Corp.

The Telegraph newspaper, predictably, paints the decision as the UK  surrendering a strategic industry to sinister foreign forces. Its veteran environmental correspondent Geoffrey Lean, writes:

So, much of Britain’s highly sensitive nuclear industry – which sprang from the atomic bomb programme – is effectively to be owned by two foreign powers, one the country’s oldest traditional enemy, the other a bitter Cold War opponent.

Many UK consumers probably aren’t old enough to remember the Cold War, or that China was ever a “bitter opponent”.  But they do know that the UK faces a severe energy crisis — and higher electricity bills — unless new low-carbon power plants get build. As the UK’s electricity industry did not want to take on the risk, Johnny Foreigner has had to step in.

Radiation contaminated cows milk at Windscale 1957

Radiation contaminated cows milk at Windscale 1957

Jingoism aside, is there anything to fear from China’s growing desire to flex its nuclear muscles on the international stage?

One can argue the merits and drawbacks of building nuclear power plants from the economic & environmental standpoints till the cows come home.

But as the current government is in favor of nuclear power and the political decision has been taken, the real issue is whether the chosen contractors  can deliver the plant on time and to budget.

The last reactor built in the UK was two decades ago, so its understandable that the UK government chose not to use the UK’s long mothballed nuclear engineering skills, even though the UK pioneered nuclear energy.

France has remained a fervent support of nuclear power even when the rest of Europe was saying “Nein”. Today, EDF manages 59 nuclear plants.

China is a more recent convert to nuclear energy but it has wasted little time in picking up speed. China is currently building 30 nuclear power plants or half the plants now under construction in the world.Some of China’s nucear reactors are supplied by Russia, while others use European designs.

Critics worry about the China’s lack of transparency and the nuclear industry’s safety arrangements, particularly given the country’s short track record with nuclear power. The fear is that in the rush to get plants built, corners may get cut.

And like it or not, nuclear accidents do happen. At least 57 nuclear accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster and France has had 12 in the past 30 years but none of them caused fatalities.

The   British government presumably knew full well that many UK citizens are uncomfortable at the prospect of China being involved in the building and running of UK nuclear plants.

But its role in the UK’s nuclear industry is going to be a minor one for the foreseeable future as it will be EDF that leads the Hinkley Point project.

The British government said that China might be allowed to take majority stakes in future nuclear power plants, but that day is still some time off.

In the meantime, the UK clearly expects that its decision to open up a strategic industry to China will be reciprocated in new opportunities for British firms in China, particularly in sectors where they are under-represented.