For what it’s worth, I share Nick Timothy’s deep concerns about involving the Chinese state in the construction of national infrastructure like Hinkley Point. Even if we were to forget that China is a dictatorship – and we ought not to – there are obvious risks to national security.
As Timothy pointed out last year, one of the state companies involved in the proposals, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation, is a self-declared part of the Chinese security apparatus, which is obviously somewhat worrying. Those concerns have been intensified by the news that a senior employee of the Chinese General Nuclear Corporation (CGNC), the body which would own a stake in Hinkley Point, stands accused of nuclear espionage in the United States.
The risks therefore range from the possibility of opening our key national infrastructure up to spying right through to the risk that the Chinese government might be able to disrupt our power supply if it so wished – a fear raised by Malcolm Rifkind, who is not ordinarily given to conspiracy theories.
Taking such concerns seriously is simply a question of good sense on the part of the Government. China might never wish to harm us even if Hinkley gave it a route to do so – but that hardly seems like a risk worth taking. Really it would be bizarre if China did not take the opportunity to embed some spooks and some software loopholes into our energy grid if we offered them the chance. Even free and democratic allies still spy on one another; can we really say that we are entirely confident that a tyrannical power can be trusted with the keys to the nation’s switchbox?
Now that the Government has indeed placed Hinkley on hold, though, the question comes: what now?
Britain still needs new generating capacity in order to keep the lights on. While some argue that new nuclear is not required, the consensus in government still seems to be that it ought to be part of the mix – particularly given its benefits in terms of energy security and lack of carbon emissions.
If we don’t take Chinese money to fund the extremely expensive process of constructing it, though, where is the cash going to come from? Might some sovereign wealth fund or other be tempted to invest, or could the money be raised on the open market? Any new investor would presumably have to accept a return lower than that EDF and the Chinese had planned for, if reports of Downing Street’s misgivings about the cost of the contract are correct, which would make them hard to find.
Today’s Daily Mail reports that a middle way is being explored in Whitehall by which EDF would still build Hinkley with Chinese money, but the CGNC would not then get the go-ahead to directly construct a new reactor in Essex. Apparently the hope is that this way we would still gain new nuclear capacity while minimising the security risks.
There is of course another option, lobbied for in some Conservative circles though distinctly at odds with recent Tory policy. What is the new Government’s attitude to using taxpayers’ money (or, even more controversially, borrowing) to fund infrastructure projects, in the context of the as-yet unexplained industrial strategy?