China tensions won’t derail UK nuclear plan

Rising global tensions in the South China Sea have led the UK Government to consider cutting China out of multi-billion dollar plans to develop new giant nuclear power stations in Britain.

The arrival of a British carrier group in the South China Sea reflects a physical escalation in the UK’s rejection of China’s claims over the disputed sea and the shutting down of a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong.

One retaliation is to dump state owned China General Nuclear from a consortium to build the AUD$38 billion 3.3GW Sizewell C nuclear power station proposed to be constructed in Suffolk.

This follows commencement of the equally massive and controversial AUD$41 billion 3.3GW Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset.

Earlier this year Britain announced new and aggressive climate change targets, planning to cut emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 en route to total decarbonisation by 2050. A central pillar of this strategy is the full decarbonisation of electricity supply, built on a core of new nuclear generators that are planned to run for most of the rest of the century.

In addition to Hinkley Point and Sizewell is the 2.3GW Bradwell B power station, alone taking UK nuclear capacity back up to around 20 per cent of total generation.

While the UK has Brexited Europe, it has increased its reliance on European electricity through an expanding network of up to 25GW of transmission cables linking the UK with Norway, Denmark, France, Germany and Belgium.

National Grid’s plan for zero emissions electricity is built around renewables capacity and increased battery storage, sitting on top of this combination of big transmission and big (zero emissions) base-load.

The transmission provides the flexibility needed to manage the big swings in renewable generation, while the nuclear base-load narrows the range of renewable and subsequent volatility while providing critical services like system strength and inertia.

The massive sticker price and enduring controversy around the nuclear generators shows two things: how valuable they are to UK system planners and how such investments, while challenging, are possible when a national government has a genuinely bi-partisan approach to climate change.

If diplomatic tensions continue China may dip out selling its Hualong One reactors to the UK, which in turn will only push up the eye watering price a bit further. But as Margaret Thatcher once famously observed, “the lady’s not for turning”.