Nearly two weeks ago, construction of the £18bn Hinkley Point C was finally about to begin. Today, it’s causing something of a diplomatic incident.
Just 12 days after the government said it wanted more time to decide whether to go ahead with the scheme, China’s UK ambassador has used a UK newspaper to express his country’s concerns.
Since the government’s revelation, there has been a wave of stories about the reasons behind the decision to delay, with national security frequently cited as among the PM’s concerns.
There has been scrutiny of Theresa May’s chief of staff Nick Timothy’s comments about Chinese involvement in Hinkley.
Writing on ConservativeHome last October, Mr Timothy talked about Chinese intelligence working against the UK’s interest and fears that China could use its nuclear role to build weaknesses into computer systems that would allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will.
But is this a legitimate concern, or simply a way of backing out of a costly project?
Two nuclear sector sources close to the project told CN today the security concerns were “a red herring”.
One source said: “There are loads of regulations in place, nationally and internationally, to ensure this is just not an issue… This isn’t to say that the Chinese won’t be annoyed though.”
And this annoyance is starting to be publicly expressed at the highest level.
Writing in the FT today, China’s UK ambassador Liu Xiaoming warned about the UK-Chinese relationship hitting a critical juncture and hinted that trading relations between the countries could be damaged by further delay to Hinkley.
Chinese investment is of course not restricted to the multi-billion nuclear project, having been actively and repeatedly encouraged by the former chancellor George Osborne.
A source insists that “the Chinese are a resilient bunch” and will be able to forgive the delay. But this might not last forever.
With the UK facing energy shortages and question marks over infrastructure investment post-Brexit, the UK cannot easily afford to lose foreign expertise and funding already being utilised on tens of billions-worth of projects.
Whatever Mrs May’s views are on the Chinese threat to national security, hasn’t Hinkley come too far now to just turn around and say no?
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to Hinkley, nothing is certain.
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Founder of ConservativeHome Tim Montgomerie will address what Brexit will mean for UK politics, the economy and construction at the CN Summit on 11-12 October. London’s deputy mayor for transport Val Shawcross and HUB development director Steve Sanham have also joined the stellar line-up. Contact Ilja Ryndin on 020 3033 2609 or by email at Ilja Ryndin@emap.com to secure your place.