Signing off on a nuclear energy project that allows China to build its own reactors on British soil one day may have been too much for Prime Minister Theresa May.
The Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in southwest England, the most expensive electricity project in the world, was once touted as the answer to the U.K.�s coming energy woes as it retires its fleets of coal-fired and nuclear stations.
After years of delays, it falls on May to give government approval � a move she decided to postpone until the fall, soon after the French state-run energy company EDF made its final investment decision on Thursday.
May�s concern is believed to be more about the project�s Chinese minority shareholder than its �18 billion price tag, though the previous U.K. government�s deal to provide heavy subsidies for the project over 35 years has fuelled widespread opposition to it.
Hinkley is the first of three nuclear projects involving China�s state-run China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN). The first two would be built with French technology and some Chinese funding ; the third would become the first Chinese-built-and-operated plant in the West.
Nick Timothy, May�s joint chief of staff, warned that the Chinese could �build weaknesses into a computer system� and shut down the country�s energy production �at will.�
�There�s no other OECD country that would allow China to have access to its critical infrastructure,� said Paul Dorfman, an honorary senior research fellow at the Energy Institute at University College London, describing the successive plants as Russian dolls.
While the collective nuclear deal represents a massive investment, especially in light of Brexit uncertainty, that may not be the only concern.
�The treasury is concerned about money, and U.K. intelligence services are concerned about security,� Dorfman said. �China�s hacking expertise would allow access to key data via back-door technology concerning U.K. critical energy infrastructure.�
Having spent six years overseeing the U.K.�s intelligence arm MI5 as the home affairs secretary, May has more insight than most into the security threats that give China access to the country�s energy system could pose, said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the U.K. think tank RUSI. �She has a very clear sense of those sorts of concerns.�
The U.S. Department of Justice published an indictment against CGN in April, accusing the company and a Chinese nuclear engineer of trying to enlist U.S.-based experts to develop and produce nuclear material in China, without Washington�s approval. CGN would have a 33.5 percent stake in Hinkley if the project proceeds.
Nick Timothy, May�s joint chief of staff and loyal advisor, warned last year in a much-discussed blog post that the Chinese could �build weaknesses into a computer system� and shut down the country�s energy production �at will.� His warning was published just before London and Beijing finalized the nuclear energy partnership with France�s EDF.