Jim Armitage: More power to China if it wants to have a hand in our nuclear future
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Friday 11 October 2013
Outlook Two stories out yesterday: first, unions are up in arms that China appears likely to bail out our decades-long efforts at building a new generation of nuclear power stations. Second, the next generation of offshore wind farms looks set to be kiboshed because energy companies aren't prepared to invest on the subsidies being offered by the Government.
Surely the one story holds the solution to the other. If China is willing to invest some of its wall of cash in our energy infrastructure, we should welcome it, rather than complain.
Scaremongers fret that Chinese businesses should not be granted access to critical UK assets, suggesting China is in some undefined way a malign power with the potential desire to, as one union told The Independent this week, "switch our lights off and on".
Quite why it would want to reduce its overseas earnings in such a way – unless we're on a war footing – is never clearly explained. The critics also cite poor safety records in China's domestic infrastructure, and have concerns about lapses in safety in its nuclear industry.
But those are problems in China. There is no reason why a strong British regulatory framework and decent monitoring should not ensure a Chinese operator would be just as safe as a French, Japanese or German-owned one. However, it is crucial to get that framework right before China General Nuclear Power Group gets its foot in our nuclear door.
We must avoid a re-run of the hash the Labour government made of Huawei's quiet arrival in our telecoms infrastructure a decade ago. BT put out a tender to provide the equipment for its £10bn 21st Century Network project. The Government, possibly worried about jeopardising future trade deals, waved the Chinese bid through. It was only years later that the security services cottoned on to the cyber-security implications of running the country's data traffic through Chinese-made kit. Finally, a few months back, a major investigation by the Intelligence and Security Committee made scathing criticisms of the contract's "haphazard" handling by Westminster and Whitehall.
It said ministers must be deeply involved in the negotiations long before such a critical contract is awarded. Clear regulations and lines of accountability should be established. The monitoring authorities should be well-resourced and alert to potential problems. Crucially, the Government's powers to intervene must be strongly and clearly defined.
If the Chinese are prepared to live with these commonsense recommendations, we should welcome their money. If we're not prepared to fund our energy infrastructure ourselves, we must look to those who will.
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