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Nuclear expert raises concerns about Chinese role in UK's new nuclear plants

UK government adviser John Large says Chinese firms are rooted in state system without independent safety regulators


One of Britain's leading nuclear engineering consultants has raised serious concerns about the safety implications of handing over some of Britain's nuclear plants to Chinese operators.

John Large, a government adviser, said he felt uncomfortable with the lack of transparency around the Chinese atomic industry, which has been drafted in to help the UK by George Osborne on the chancellor's trade mission to China. Osborne has given the green light to Chinese nuclear firms taking majority stakes in the UK's next generation of nuclear plants.

The first deal is likely to be unveiled next week, with China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNPC) taking a minority stake with the main operator, France's EDF, to build the new Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset. No UK firms are involved after Centrica pulled out.

Large, who has advised the UK government on nuclear issues, said: "We can see that even with the French operatorship of UK nuclear power stations [through EDF] that there are differences in the regulatory regimes in France and the UK.

"But these problems would be much more profound with the Chinese, who like the Russians, are rooted in a government system without independent [safety] regulators," he said.

His warning came as a report from the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International highlighted Chinese firms as some of the most secretive within the world's fastest-growing markets.

Large said it would be quite easy to supervise a US company working in Britain because they were used to operating under the American safety regime, which is noted for its openness.

But he said he was very wary of the "totally non-transparent" Chinese regulatory system, which left outsiders with almost no idea how it really worked.

Large feared that the Treasury's enthusiasm for winning and keeping foreign investment might mean pressure being brought to bear on the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation to gloss over problems encountered with a Chinese operator.

The reaction from Large, who in the past also helped the Russian government raise the stricken nuclear submarine Kursk, comes after Osborne endorsed Chinese firms' purchase of stakes in British reactors, including majority ownership.

The Treasury said: "While any initial Chinese stake in a nuclear-power project is likely to be a minority stake, over time stakes in subsequent new power stations could be majority stakes."

But it added: "Any investment from any country has to comply with rigorous regulatory standards for safety and security."

The government is expected to agree a deal over a generous 35-year subsidy regime to enable EDF and CGNPC to proceed with building a new Hinkley C reactor.

There has always been unease in some quarters about the security issues around inviting China to take a close role in certain industries such as telecoms and power. A leader from the GMB union recently told the Independent it was "almost Orwellian" to allow a country like China, which has been linked to allegations of corporate hacking, to be allowed access to highly sensitive energy infrastructure.

The concerns came as a report showed that China has the least transparent companies operating in the major emerging economies of Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa. In a survey of 75 companies across the Brics by Transparency International, Chinese companies were the least likely to publish financial information and vital details about corporate structure that allows them to be held to account.

Of 33 Chinese firms surveyed, including Chery Automobile and China National Offshore Oil Corporation, none has made any public statements on outlawing bribery.

Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International, said: "There is a lack of transparency about some global companies in emerging markets, particularly in China. As they expand, that is a problem because the citizens of the countries in which they are operating will want to know some basic things about them. And indeed we think they have a right to know."

"Part of the quid pro quo of coming into the international arena is that you have to play by international norms."

Barrington said Osborne had to ensure that Chinese firms operating in the UK met British legal and company standards. "[Osborne] hasn't sent that message out publicly – I hope he is doing it privately."