Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Return of Atomic Freddy

The Planet of the Apes (atomic power enthusiasts) has new life this week.

On Monday night China’s President Xi arrived in London, and the media have been solidly briefed he will sign a series of commercial agreements on Wednesday consolidating China’s inward investment into UK infrastructure: with  the jewell in the crown the backing for new nuclear power.

The nuclear promoters have long berated anti-nuclear activists, arguing extravagantly if we don’t have new nuclear, we will go back to the cave man era, and freeze in the dark. As it happens,  Xi Jinping- or Uncle Xi as the Communist Party of China propaganda a machine would have him called by China’s 1.3 citizens- was actually brought up for seven  years in his youth  in a cave house, when his father, a major party figure, was exiled to the country from Beijing under the Cultural Revolution re-education programme. (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4589616.ece)

So now the nuclear neanderthals have their champion in Xi Jinping, and Britain’s first new nuclear power plant since 1995 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Energy)  - when the rump of the old state-owned nuclear industry in the guise of Nuclear Electric was privatised as British Energy (since itself bought out by French State power generator, Electricte de France) – is to be built by UK subsidiary EDF Energy in the first new twin reactor nuclear station at Hinkley C-  for a total current cost of an eye-watering £24.5 billion.

How can we explain how an industry moribund for nearly a quarter of a century can be resurrected from the dead like Freddy Krueger in the cult horror film series Nightmare on Elm Street? Is there some kind of hidden driver that sees the hyper pro-market chancellor George Osborne elbow aside  his energy secretary Amber Rudd, to take over the nuclear  deal with Beijing, (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/sep/25/george-osborne-presses-on-with-hinkley-power-station-despite-criticism) which he and David Cameron started two years ago with their charm offensive visit to China (“China companies to take major part in UK nuclear power developments, British chancellor reveals,” South China Morning Post, Thursday 17 October, 2013; http://www.scmp.com/business/economy/article/1333628/uk-allow-china-majority-stakes-nuclear-projects-osborne) to establish a nuclear power partnership that involves the Chinese State Investment bank, two Chinese state owned nuclear companies , the French State owned nuclear Generator, (EDF), the French Stater-owned ( and near bankrupt) reactor design company (Areva) and a raft of state-supported subsidies worth tens of billions?

At that time Osborne said at the fifth UK-China Economic Financial Dialogue  on 15 October 2013 ( which followed a visit to China the previous month by then energy secretary Ed Davey to smooth the way)  (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/uk-china-economic-financial-dialogue-chancellors-statement%20):

 Britain and China are partners in growth. In the agreements we have made today and the other deals I am announcing this week, we are showing how Britain and China are taking the next big step in our relationship.  It means more trade, more investment and more jobs. More jobs in Britain. More jobs in China. And from services to science, from infratrastructure to innovation, we are working together and creating ties between our countries. We embrace these opportunities on the basis of shared interests, greater understanding and mutual respect.  That has been my approach to today’s dialogue and to the whole of my trip this week.”

Two academics at the Science Policy Research Unit(SRU) at the University of Sussex, Professor Andy  Stirling and Dr Philip Johnstone, argue in a recent article  in academic blog site, The Conversation (All at sea: making sense of the UK’s muddled nuclear policy (https://theconversation.com/all-at-sea-making-sense-of-the-uks-muddled-nuclear-policy-48553), that perhaps this very odd and ideologically perverse nuclear partnership can be explained  using the concept of the “deep state”, insisting: “now is the moment to ask some searching questions about what nuclear policy is doing to British politics.”

A one-time senior British diplomat, Carne Ross - who was the British expert on Iraq at the UN from 1997 to 2002 – developed the idea of the ”deep state” in trying to explain how the Iraq invasion plans could have been covered up (“Is there a UK ‘deep state’?” Anthony Barnett, Open Democracy, 26 July 2010; https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/anthony-barnett/is-there-uk-deep-state

What is striking about nuclear power development – especially in countries also possessing nuclear weapons-  is how similar it has been in all major countries, whether the dominant economic structure is capitalist (US), corporatist (UK and France), State Capitalist/communist or Soviet Union (State Communist (now capitalist). The institutional arrangements and secrecy surrounding the development has mirrored each other across all five states.

In their seminal study The Nuclear Barons, published in 1981, journalist Peter Pringle and political advisor and lawyer James Spigelman, demonstrate how across the political divide “the atom offered each country’s decision makers many opportunities to indulge a yearning for power, relish a sense of achievement proclaim a vision for the future …with decisions often frequently distorted by personal ambition and institutional self–interest.”

They went on “As the nuclear revolution expanded, the advocates built special institutions to keep the atom apart from the checks and balances of the normal political process…the atomic institutions became almost totalitarian in their powers often requiring scientists and engineers to suppress information that stood in the way of the nuclear revolution.”


Thus the US created the domineering Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy), the Soviet Union had the meaningless Ministry of Medium-Sized Machines  (now Rosatom), the UK created its Atomic Energy Authority, France its own Atomic Energy Commission (Commissariat a L’Energie Atomique) out of which Areva and EDF grew; and China Started with Non Ferrous and Rare Metals Company, it developed post war with Soviet Union, and added the Institute of Atomic Energy a few years later: all had primary military nuclear functions, out of which civilian nuclear  research, design and development  grew.

Last week The Times highlighted alleged UK security service concerns over the security implications of doing nuclear deals with China (“Nuclear deal with China is threat to UK security, 16 October, www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4587446.ece#tab-5)

Indeed, the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) boasts on its website that it “successfully developed the atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb and nuclear submarines”. http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/business/Industry/article1620628.ece

Moreover, Professor of International Development at theUniversity of Bristol, Jeffrey Henderson, wrote in The Conversation, on 5 October, (“Serious issues for George Osborne on China’s role in the UK’s nuclear future”)

“One of the companies involved at Hinkley Point – China National Nuclear – produces China’s nuclear weapons. This means that as well as the Communist Party, CNNC is almost certainly controlled by the People’s Liberation Army (as all Chinese military-related companies are). Given geopolitical uncertainty (with rising tensions between China, Japan and the US over China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas), allowing such a company anywhere near Britain – not to mention in an industry as strategic as power generation – verges on the insane. Has MI5 been consulted on this, and if it has, what was its advice?”

However, junior Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire sought to allay security  fears in a written Parliamentary answer to Labour backbencher Paul Flynn in a reply last Friday (16 October) stating: “Security in the civil nuclear industry is of paramount importance to the Government. The UK has in place, robust security regulations which are enforced by an independent regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation. These regulations cover sensitive nuclear information as well as holdings of nuclear material and nuclear sites. The Government keeps the regulatory framework for security in the civil nuclear industry under continuous review. The Government welcomes Chinese investment to the UK, including in the nuclear energy sector.)


What he the omitted to mention is the chief nuclear security and safety inspector, Dr Andy Hall, has just abruptly resigned. (http://news.onr.org.uk/2015/09/retirement-of-dr-andy-hall/)


In an interview with China Daily published today to mark his visit to Britain  (“China and UK poised to sign agreements worth billions of pounds” 19 October,  http://chinadaily.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx)  President Xi praised Britain’s “visionary and strategic choice” to become China’s best friend in the West. He added “China is ready to pursue cooperation of various forms with the UK and other countries in international production capacity and equipment manufacturing to synergize respective strengths…  There should be no swing doors or glass doors that are placed as non-economic or non-market­ based barriers,” in an oblique reference to criticisms of Chinese human rights.

Osborne seems determined not to let the niceties of human rights get in the way of his new ‘Golden Age’ grand project.

In China last month he announced £2bn of new government guarantees for the new Hinkley C  project – with UK  taxpayers now  also liable  for around two thirds of the total project cost. With the vast majority of investors put off by the risks associated with the project, critics of the scheme have argued that desperation rather than long-term planning has driven the generous terms delivered to China by the UK.

In his deal struck at last month’s 7th UK-China Economic Financial Dialogue, Osborne concluded the following detail:

22. In the important field of nuclear energy: Both sides welcome the strengthening of the partnership in civil nuclear energy since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on civil nuclear energy cooperation dated October 2013. The UK side warmly welcomes and supports Chinese investment and participation in the Hinkley Point C project and progressive involvement in the UK nuclear new-build market, including leading the development of other U. nuclear site(s) as fast as practicable, and supports the deployment of Chinese nuclear reactor technology, subject to meeting the requirements of the UK’s independent regulators. The China National Energy Administration and the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change agreed to enhance communication with each other with a view to facilitate the enterprises of both sides to explore cooperative opportunities in China, UK and other third countries, and to assist Chinese investors with understanding UK requirements and coordinating on regulatory, legal and electricity market issues, flowing from investment in UK new nuclear build.


23. The UK and China welcomed the extensive collaboration carried out across the nuclear fuel cycle, including in decommissioning, nuclear fuel transportation, and waste management under the MOU on Enhancing Cooperation in the Field of Civil Nuclear Industry Fuel Cycle Supply signed in June 2014. CAEA and DECC will continue to strengthen coordination to support relevant enterprises to secure more tangible results from cooperation in this area and looked forward to the signing of further commercial agreements/contracts. Both sides agreed to explore further the potential synergies between the UK’s Northern Powerhouse and China’s the Belt and Road Initiative, recognising the significant regional clusters of nuclear expertise established in British and Chinese regions, and welcomed the development of deeper regional ties between the UK and China in nuclear industry. China and the UK both welcomed the the first regional agreement between Sichuan Province and Cumbria, bringing together the UK’s Centre of Nuclear Excellence to deepening commercial links with China’s National Nuclear Corporation’s established cluster of expertise in Sichuan.


24. The UK and China note previous agreements signed between respective research institutes in the field of nuclear scientific research and intend jointly to establish a new research and innovation centre for nuclear. Both sides will engage further to agree details of the programmes for the centre which will carry out joint research in areas of shared interest with academia and industry.



But the Department of Energy and Climate Change is reticent to explain just how these deals will work out in practice, with minister for nuclear issues, Andrea Leadsom,  giving the same vague composite answer on 16 October to three probing questions asked last week by Mr Flynn, stating:


The Joint Research and Innovation Centre (JRIC) is envisaged to be the subject of a commercial agreement between the National Nuclear Laboratory and the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation.

These two organisations are still in the process of negotiating such an agreement and will need to consider details on the structures, funding, governance and accountability of the JRIC. As such, it is too early for Government to be able to comment on the outcomes of such a negotiation.

We continue to maintain an interest in developments of these discussions and will work, where appropriate, with our counterparts in the Chinese government to ensure that outcomes are mutually beneficial to the research landscape of both nations.

Not all are convinced. The Financial Times reported on Monday that  “The plans to open critical UK infrastructure assets up to the Chinese drew private criticism from western diplomats based in Beijing, who criticised Downing Street for “doing an Osborne”: a reference to the chancellor’s five-day warm-up tour of China last month when he said the UK should “run to China”.

It added: “According to several of the diplomats, the regular encrypted cables sent back to European and North American capitals over recent weeks have been filled with snide remarks and criticisms of the UK’s kowtowing in the run-up to Mr Xi’s state visit.
(“Diplomats accuse Britain of ‘kowtowing’ to secure Hinkley backing,” 19 October, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/367e6f6a-7583-11e5-933d-efcdc3c11c89.html#axzz3ow07joLq)

In an interview with China Central Television on Friday, David Cameron dismissed doubts, asserting:  “We see no conflict with having that very special relationship (with the United States), with wanting to be a strong partner for China as the Chinese economy continues to grow and China emerges as an enormous world power.”

Britain this week may have to decide whether its new best friend is worth it.

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