Intelligent Energy

Could China run Britain's next nuclear reactor?

Could China run Britain's next nuclear reactor?

Posting in Design

A day after two major backers pull out of Britain's nuclear future, one expert says that Beijing could fill the void. Maybe it's also time for alternative nuclear.

China on my mind: Now that a German company has backed out of Britain's nuclear future, are Prime Minister Cameron's thoughts turning toward China?

It's one thing for the UK government to grease the policy skids in favor of nuclear power. It's another, more difficult thing, for industry to commit the multi-billions (choose your currency) needed to build reactors at the eight future sites recently approved by Prime Minister David Cameron's administration.

One nuclear expert this morning raised the possibility that the money could come from China.

"Who knows - China is looking for foreign investment," said Malcolm Grimston, associate fellow and nuclear expert at London-based international policy institute Charter House, during an interview with the BBC Today radio program, which you can listen to here (for as long as the BBC makes it available).

Grimston was answering "what next" questions from interviewer Evan Davis, a day after German company Horizon Nuclear Power  delivered a body blow to the government by bowing out of two of the eight nuclear plants.

Horizon, jointly owned by German utilities RWE and E.On, said yesterday that it could no longer afford the British projects because it faced substantial nuclear decommissioning costs in its home country, where the German government is abandoning nuclear power in the wake of the meltdowns last year at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant.

Grimston noted that Horizon would have had to borrow money at a huge cost in order to construct nuclear plants at the Oldbury-on-Severn and Wylfa sites in England and Wales, respectively.

He maintained that other utilities and companies could possibly fill the void because they would not have to borrow as heavily. For instance, he noted that  French utility EDF, which is already committed to other nuclear plants in Britain, has a stronger cash flow than do the German utilities.

EDF, however, is spending considerably to improve safety at scores of nuclear plants it already operates in France and the UK.

"There are the Russians too apparently eyeing up the market," interviewer Davis pointed out. "Do we want the Russians to be running our nuclear power stations?"

Grimston replied that any Russian operation would deploy sound modern technology that might even come from the West. "And it will be run under the regulatory structure of the United Kingdom, so ownership I don't think is a huge issue," he said.  "And who knows, China is looking for foreign investment."

I wouldn't rule out China at all. As I've noted here on SmartPlanet many times, China could easily emerge as the world leader in nuclear deployment, as it eventually shifts away from its polluting, CO2-belching coal-fired plants in its own country. It will be looking to export as well.

There are all sorts of precedents. Earlier this year, China bought a 9 percent stake in British water utility Thames Water. China is also buying up uranium mines and supply around the world as it looks to secure a hold on the fuel portion of the nuclear value chain.

The funding gap left by Horizon's departure also raises another big question: Isn't this a logical juncture at which to depart from the conventional uranium, water-cooled nuclear reactors that dominate the world nuclear scene? A large swath of the public is fed up with the safety and waste issues that surround conventional nuclear. There are several viable, safer alternatives, such as thorium fuel and molten salt reactor designs, among others (many related links below).

And it's now starting to look like nuclear fusion could be around the corner.

When a substantial backer like Horizon parts ways with a project as big as British nuclear, it seems it's time to borrow from the advertising slogan of a certain recently departed, widely acknowledged transformer of the electronics and media industry - "think different."

Photo: Longman Schools

More nuclear nuggets on SmartPlanet:

An excellent primer on alternative nuclear:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure