World News

China's Nuclear Energy Industry Gets Boost from Britain

China's nuclear energy industry has received a boost in its effort to expand abroad, with Britain saying it will allow Chinese companies to buy majority stakes in British nuclear power plants.

British Finance Minister George Osborne made the announcement Thursday, while visiting a nuclear plant in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

Osborne said Chinese companies will be allowed to invest in British nuclear projects as minority partners initially, before being able to become majority owners. He said any Chinese investment also would have to conform to "very stringent" British safety and security regulations.

Beijing has been accused by some Western governments of using cyber attacks to steal commercial and other secrets - a charge it denies.

Britain has been trying hard to attract foreign investors to help it build a new generation of nuclear power plants. It says those plants would alleviate a growing risk of power shortages in the coming years.

London has been nearing a deal with French energy company EDF to build what will be Britain's first new nuclear plant since 1995.

The Chinese plant visited by Osborne on Thursday is a joint venture between EDF and the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group.

British media said London could finalize a deal with EDF as soon as next week. They said the French company likely will include China General Nuclear as a partner in building the new plant at Hinkley Point in southwest England.

London-based Wall Street Journal political reporter Ainsley Thomson told VOA, via Skype, that Chinese investment in the British-based plant would suit both countries.

"China wants to make itself appear like it is a trustworthy, good investor. If it gets into the U.K. and it does well, other countries may also open their doors. Obviously, many countries are completely shut off to China investing in (their) critical infrastructure. The U.K. is one of the few Western countries which is not. It is openly saying, 'Come and invest.' So for China, it is a big opportunity. And for the U.K., they want money. The fact that it is Chinese is probably less important (than) the fact that they have got deep pockets and are willing invest."

China has been seeking new markets for its nuclear technology after focussing for years on its domestic industry, which operates 17 reactors and is building at least 28 more.

The official China Daily newspaper says Beijing currently has the world's largest number of reactors under construction and has built overseas reactors only in Pakistan so far.

A spokesman for British trade union GMB told VOA there is little domestic opposition to China investing in nuclear power because Chinese companies already control large parts of Britain's natural gas and electricity network.

But, speaking by phone from Brighton, GMB's national secretary for the British energy sector Gary Smith said there is still cause for concern.

"It cannot be right or good for the British people and for the long term future of Britain, to be so dependent on foreign investment in our energy sector. The nuclear industry in the U.K. is now controlled by American companies, by French companies and by the Chinese. We have no strategy around energy and we have no coherent policy and that is why we are reduced to going cap in hand (begging) to foreign investors, absolutely desperate for their money."

British Finance Minister Osborne defended London's appeal for Chinese investment in nuclear plants, saying it will free up British taxpayer money for schools and hospitals. He also said it could help to create more jobs and lead to lower long-term energy costs for consumers.

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