The Guardian recently revealed that CGN (China General Nuclear Company), which is planning to design and build a new reactor(s) at Bradwell, is reluctant to disclose information about security measures in order to protect its plant in China. While this is deeply worrying, it is not entirely surprising. It is par for the course for a state-owned company embedded in a secretive and authoritarian culture thus far uncontaminated by western concepts of openness, transparency and public participation. As The Guardian comments, this is ‘a glimpse of UK nuclear regulation rubbing up against Chinese state secrecy’.
There are three major concerns here. First, is the Chinese national strategic interest. The Bradwell project was conceived at the highest possible level as a deal between the heads of the British and Chinese governments. For the British it meant foreign investment into the nuclear sector; for the Chinese it offered an opportunity to promote its technology to a global market. But the deal also gives the Chinese some control over sensitive British infrastructure. In the event that relations turned hostile this could prove potentially threatening to UK national interests.
It is, therefore, up to the British regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), to exercise its robust processes to ensure the absolute safety and security of the Bradwell nuclear plant. This raises a second concern, whether the ONR has the capacity and capability to do so. The ONR has a potential conflict between its regulatory role to achieve security and the requirement in its guidance ‘to consider the economic impact that their actions are likely to have on individual businesses, and where appropriate, industry sectors’. The fact that the Chinese have been unwilling to share material about security measures suggests that the ONR’s regulatory role could be compromised in the interests of commercial secrecy.
Independent oversight needed
The third concern is the closed nature of the relationship between regulators and company. They are locked in a process – known as the Generic Design Appraisal (GDA) – which is likely to last at least four years, at the end of which the ONR will indicate whether it is satisfied with the safety and security of the Chinese reactor. It would be natural, if not inevitable, that relations over time become mutually supportive and mutually acceptable compromises are fashioned.
What is needed, and from the outset, is a much greater independent and public oversight of the whole process. In CGN’s consistent refusal to answer even basic questions about its proposals and in its unwillingness to share security information with regulators, the Bradwell GDA has got off to an unpromising start. If there is nothing to hide, then why hide it? Confidence in the integrity and independence of the process, never high, will rapidly diminish if local and public interests are kept at arms length.
Chinese Wall of Silence
CGN has been predictably parsimonious in giving out information to the public about their plans for a new reactor (or two?) on the Bradwell site. Its recent letter to residents around the Blackwater estuary provides very little beyond stating an intention to continue to proceed with the plans.
Every request by BANNG for basic information or for a public meeting has been met with a wall of silence. Yet, it is clear the Chinese have already been cosying up to the unfortunately biddable Maldon District Council with promises of a cornucopia of benefits in return for their support of the project. A vision of a partnership between Chinese developer and local councils, Maldon District and Essex County, is projected – surely a premature and prejudiced idea at this early stage. And, one might ask, why has Colchester Borough been excluded?
Answers to basic questions
It would be much more useful if the Chinese company provided some answers on the issues that really concern local people. These are: how many reactors are envisaged?; what is their generating capacity?; what is the physical scale of the planned development?; how many workers will be at the plant?; where will they be recruited from and how will they be housed?; what are the proposed transportation arrangements?. Even at this stage it must be possible to give indications of scale and impact.
Above all, the local public, who according to BANNG’s extensive surveys are opposed to the development, need to be given some information on how the Chinese plan to deal with the technical and environmental issues. In particular what will be the impact on a shallow estuary – a Marine Conservation Zone, no less – of the demands for cooling water from such a massive project.
And, even more important, how and where do the Chinese intend to store the highly radioactive spent fuel and other dangerous wastes for the indefinite future, certainly well into the next century?
Pull out now
The letter indicates the Chinese are beginning investigation of the site ‘to inform the power station proposals’. They must surely soon recognise, if they have not already, that this site is simply inappropriate for a nuclear power station. It is environmentally too precious and increasingly at the mercy of the forces of climate change, which will render it wholly unsuitable for such a dangerous and long-term nuclear commitment.
The letter says, ‘it is a lengthy process over many years and every nuclear proposal is different’. We can only conclude that, sooner or later, CGN and the regulators will reach the obvious conclusion: that this project will not run. Better to pull out now than continue a futile process that wastes money and raises unnecessary anxiety among the Blackwater communities.