Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Chinese nuclear whispers getting louder

A shorter version of this was submitted as a letter to the Editor at the Financial Times:
The article by his excellency, Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK (“Hinkley Point is a test of mutual trust between UK and China,” August 9,http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b8bc62dc-5d74-11e6-bb77-a121aa8abd95.html#axzz4GofyQQAc) is both important and disturbing.

It is important because it contains a veiled threat at the end of his  commentary warning that “As long as both sides cherish what has been achieved and continue to expand and deepen our co-operation across the board, bilateral relations will maintain their strong momentum and work for the wellbeing of both the Chinese and British people,” with the unstated hint that unless this continues to China’s satisfaction, other financial, investment and business  co-operation could be impacted.

It is disturbing because the Ambassador makes a number of unsupported assertions in regard to nuclear safety in China and nuclear safety and security regulation in the UK. Both are open to challenge.

On regulatory issues, the Ambassador asserts: “The UK has a state of the art supervision regime and legal system.”

However, at a meeting in Manchester last October, executives from the UK nuclear regulator , the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), revealed to  representatives from environmental  stakeholder groups  that they now have to encourage the industry’s economic growth in addition to promoting safety. 

But to be independent and effective, surely the ONR needs to stand up to Government pressure to act as an arm of the nuclear cheerleaders at the Treasury, and carry on implementing the robust UK nuclear safety rules. Nuclear industry regulation is totally unsuitable to the Business Department’s misguided crusade to cut red tape in regulations.

During the Manchester meeting, the ONR seemed to be dangerously edging towards the corporate financial interests of the nuclear industry rather than the public interests of ensuring national nuclear safety.

At the same time, minutes of a ONR board meeting, (held  on 13 October last year), revealed  "DWP [ie  the Department for Work & Pensions , which sponsors ONR)  has been tasked with saving £590m by mid-2019, and this target will include the activities of ONR. The board set a very clear expectation that ONR would need to contribute to the efficiency savings and that we needed to be looking for efficiencies across all of ONR and not just the back office functions."  (emphasis added)

On Chinese nuclear safety, the Ambassador states: “China has a fine record of 30 years of safe operation of nuclear facilities”

Not all agree. In a little noticed article published nearly three years ago, nuclear Industry veteran Li Yulun, a former vice-president of China National Nuclear Corp  (CNNC) told the South China Morning Post : "Our state leaders have put a high priority on [nuclear safety] but companies executing projects do not seem to have the same level of understanding,"

Moreover, In what he considered to be another sign that China has been rushing into a new technology, Li Yulun noted that Britain's ONR had rejected Westinghouse's bid to supply reactors (in June 2011), citing some "unresolved technical issues".

He also quoted Westinghouse's head of its British unit Mike Tynan as having said that a significant amount of work needed to be done on the safety front, while Chinese nuclear safety regulators already approved it several years earlier.

(“China nuclear plant delay raised safety concern,” South China Morning Post, 7 October 2013, http://www.scmp.com/business/china-business/article/1325973/china-nuclear-plant-delay-raises-safety-concern
The Ambassador further asserts: “There have also been extensive and thorough discussions by all involved and in the media regarding the project’s cost-effectiveness, its timeline and the safety of the technology.”

But to date no Chinese officials have met with the ever-growing group of concerned local citizens in the Blackwater estuary area in Essex, where the Chinese want to build their first UK reactor at Bradwell,

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