The government is considering a proposal to detach development of the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant from an agreement allowing China to build a reactor in Essex.
The proposal is one of the options under consideration after Theresa May delayed approving the £18bn Hinkley Point project last month, according to a report in the Times (£).
The prime minister is concerned about China’s involvement with the project to build Britain’s first nuclear power plant for a generation in Somerset and a further agreement for China to build reactors in Bradwell, Essex, and Sizewell, Suffolk.
The government enlisted China last September to fund a third of Hinkley Point in a deal meant to ease financial pressure on EDF, the French builder of the plant, and forge closer links with China.
But May, who raised objections to the deal when she was home secretary, called a surprise review soon after becoming prime minister.
An option under consideration in Whitehall is to approve Hinkley Point but delay a decision on the Bradwell reactor to allow a discussion about its effect on British security, the Times said.
Any attempt to split Hinkley Point from the agreement to let China build reactors in Britain would endanger the whole deal because the Bradwell plant was meant to be a showcase for China’s nuclear technology in Europe.
Tension over Hinkley Point means May risks an awkward first G20 meeting of world leaders as prime minister. The meeting, on 4 and 5 September, takes place in the Chinese City of Hangzhou and will be hosted by Xi Jinping, China’s president, who signed the Hinkley Point agreement last year.
EDF, the French state-owned energy group, approved the building of Hinkley Point in July after months of doubts about whether it was financially strong enough to take on the giant project.
On Sunday, Vincent de Rivaz, EDF’s UK chief executive, called on the UK to set aside concerns about Chinese involvement in the project.
“We know and trust our Chinese partners.” he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. De Rivaz said there were “enormous benefits for the UK” from the involvement of China, which has the largest civil nuclear programme in the world.
China has made clear its frustration over May’s decision to delay a decision on Hinkley Point. The Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, wrote that relations with Britain were at a “crucial historical juncture”.
May then wrote to Xi and China’s premier, Li Keqiang, promising closer business and trade ties between Britain and the world’s second-biggest economy.
May’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, last year raised concerns that Chinese state-owned companies were investing in sensitive infrastructure.
Timothy wrote on the ConservativeHome website: “Rational concerns about national security are being swept to one side because of the desperate desire for Chinese trade and investment.”