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China must wait four years for decision on Bradwell nuclear plant

China faces at least a four-year wait to find out whether its plans to build a nuclear power station in Essex will be approved.

If it got the go-ahead, Britain would be relying heavily on Chinese investment for its future energy supply after the government approved the construction of an £18bn nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset, which will be 33% owned by China General Nuclear (CGN).

Theresa May pushed through the Hinkley Point C project despite opposition from MPs and the public over its cost and the involvement of China. However, the project in Bradwell, Essex, is even more controversial because it would be majority owned and designed by China.

The prime minister’s approval for Hinkley Point was backed by George Osborne, the former chancellor who championed the project. However, Osborne said the agreement with France and China approved by May looked “pretty much like the same deal” agreed last year by David Cameron’s government.

This is despite May’s government claiming it had inserted a “special share” in the agreement to help protect national security and ensure the ownership of the nuclear plant did not change without state approval.

“I’m very pleased that we are going ahead with the Hinkley power plant,” Osborne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I don’t think anything has fundamentally changed from the deal that we put together in government just a few months ago. It looks to me pretty much like the same deal.

“The advice we got from civil servants in the energy ministry and from the security establishment was that the special share would not add any additional protection beyond what the very tough and tight regulatory regime already provided us. It didn’t seem to me necessary to have some additional special share. Maybe the advice has changed over the last few months. I don’t know, obviously I’m not in the government any more.”

Under the deal, CGN agreed to invest £6bn in Hinkley Point C in return for leading its own power plant project at Bradwell.

The Bradwell plant is considered vital by the state-owned company because it would be the first Chinese nuclear reactor to be built in a developed country and an opportunity to promote China’s technological expertise.

CGN plans formally to submit its plan for a nuclear reactor at Bradwell within weeks. However, it would take at least four years for the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to assess the proposals and possibly approve them. This means that despite the government having approved Hinkley Point C, the shape of Britain’s future energy supply will remain unresolved for some time.

Sources close to CGN said they were “confident” about winning approval but prepared for a “lengthy and meticulous process”.

The company has held preliminary discussions with the ONR about Bradwell, its technology and its governance structure. The regulator said in an official document earlier this year that CGN was in a “good position” to begin a generic design assessment, the formal process to approve a new nuclear reactor.

The GDA for Bradwell would begin when the Chinese company submitted its proposals and the government gave the ONR a green light. The process for the Chinese company would be the same as for other new reactors and would take around four years, as long as the group met the timetable for submissions and provided sufficient detail.

The ONR said: “As the independent regulator for all [UK] nuclear sites we have strong powers to ensure the safe and secure delivery of any new nuclear project.”

CGN would own two-thirds of the Bradwell B project, with the French energy company EDF owning the rest. This is the reverse of Hinkley Point C, which is two-thirds owned by EDF and of a French design.

The government’s approval of Hinkley Point C has been welcomed in China.

Johnny Hon, a Sino-British entrepreneur and vice-president of the 48 Group Club, which promotes trade links between the countries, said: “Although the news is most welcome from China’s perspective, their most anticipated deal is the third potential reactor in Bradwell in Essex – whose details are yet to be confirmed.

“This reactor would be the first in a developed country to use Chinese technology and [would] be a breakthrough in establishing China as a global leader in nuclear power.”

Beijing’s official news agency, Xinhua, said May’s backing of Hinkley Point C had saved UK-China relations from being “tossed into uncertainty”. In an opinion piece on Friday, Xinhua said the project had been put at risk by “some fictitious ‘national security’ concerns about Chinese investment … Had the programme gone under, all sides were to lose dearly, while China-Britain relations could have been tossed into uncertainty.”

Contracts relating to the construction of Hinkley Point C are already being awarded. First Bus and Crosville Motor Services have won a 10-year contract to provide bus services for workers involved in building the power plant in Somerset. Around 300 jobs will be created for the service, which will use 160 environmentally friendly buses.

Meanwhile General Electric, the US industrial giant, has confirmed it is in line to receive $1.9bn (£1.5bn) by building steam turbines and generators for the power plant.

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