Deal signed for France-China consortium to build Britain's Hinkley Point nuclear plant

France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (left) and Greg Clark Britain's Secretary of State for Business leave 10 Carlton House Terrace in central London on Sept 29, 2016.
France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (left) and Greg Clark Britain's Secretary of State for Business leave 10 Carlton House Terrace in central London on Sept 29, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - The contract for a French-Chinese consortium to build Britain's first nuclear plant in a generation was signed on Thursday (Sept 29) at a low-key ceremony, after a string of controversies threatened to scupper the huge deal.

The British government had delayed agreement over concerns about China's involvement, while there were also questions about how the French state-owned power giant EDF would fund the construction of Hinkley Point.

The contracts marked "a significant step forward for a new era of nuclear power in the UK", Britain's business minister Greg Clark said in a statement after the signing, which was also attended by French and Chinese officials.

Britain finally gave the go-ahead earlier this month for the £18 billion (S$32 billion) complex, which is expected to provide seven per cent of the country's power needs, but it set conditions for the deal.

The government has said EDF cannot cede majority control of the project and wants more scrutiny over national security concerns for future projects.

EDF's board gave its go-ahead on Tuesday for the project in Somerset, south-west England, which will not be operational until 2025.

China has a one-third stake in the project and analysts had warned that Britain could have jeopardised relations with the world's second-largest economy if it scrapped the deal.

Critics said it could give China the power to turn off the lights.

Mr Jean-Bernard Levy, chief executive of the French state-owned power company EDF, said this month that the move "relaunches nuclear power in Europe".

He said Thursday's ceremony marked a "milestone for those who have worked for so long" on the project.

The British government has said the plant's construction will create 26,000 jobs and "a huge boost to the economy".

Following the signing ceremony, French energy company Areva announced it had won subcontracts related to Hinkley Point worth more than five billion euros (S$7.6 billion).

Areva said the contracts included the delivery of the two nuclear steam supply systems, fuel supply, and safety at the plant, with work due to start in the early 2020s.

One of Downing Street's prime concerns was over the security implications of allowing China to take such a large stake in a critical infrastructure project.

Beijing's state-run China General Nuclear Corporation (CGN), the Chinese investor in Hinkley Point, was also set to take the lead in the Bradwell power station project in Essex in southeast England.

Dr Olivia Gippner, a fellow in EU-China relations at the London School of Economics, said the framework was aimed at China but "by introducing a general national security test rather than focusing only on Chinese investment, this is a very diplomatic solution."

Chinese state media earlier this month had also welcomed the approval, but accused Britain of suffering from "China-phobia".

"Let us hope that London quits its China-phobia and works with Beijing to ensure the project's smooth development," the Xinhua news agency said in a signed commentary.

CGN is set to finance £6 billion of the cost of the Hinkley Point plant, with EDF providing the remaining £12 billion.

Critics have focused on an electricity price guarantee to be paid to EDF of £92.5 for every megawatt hour of power produced by Hinkley for the next 35 years, rising with inflation, despite falling energy prices.

The project is strongly opposed by environmentalists.

"The UK government is about to sign away billions of pounds of billpayers' money to a project bedevilled by legal, financial and technical hurdles," said Mr John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK.

"Theresa May cannot build a 21st-century industrial strategy around an outdated, dodgy, and ludicrously expensive technology," he said.