The Nuclear Sieve: why Hinkley C is on hold (yet again)

There were no celebrations at Hinkley C when the British Government issued a statement that said no decision would be made until the Autumn
The huge marquee for VIP nuclear guests was already erected at the Hinkley site; champagne was already on ice; VIPs were en route to Somerset to party at the final breakthrough, when hundreds of thousands of contractual pages were due to be authorised with co-signatures of the contracting parties. Suddenly, everything was off. So what really happened asks DAVID LOWRY
Although chemical, biological radioactive and nuclear materials remain highly attractive to terrorists, they are difficult to acquire, transport, handle and deploy without particular scientific knowledge and technology

After many months of political prevarication, at 6pm yesterday the majority (85%) French state-owned Électricité de France decided in a Board meeting by 10-7 (with one board member responsible for renewable energy  resigning, citing no confidence in Edf investment policy) to give the green light for Edf to go ahead with the final investment decision to build the 37 billion Hinkley C nuclear plant

Two hours later, in an astonishing volte face, the hitherto very nuclear-friendly British Government issued a terse two sentence statement (with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial strategy, Dr Greg Clark away on a nuclear lobby visit in Japan, it came from 10 Downing Street) that said: "The UK needs a reliable and secure energy supply and the government believes that nuclear energy is an important part of the mix. The government will now consider carefully all the component parts of this project and make its decision in the early autumn."

The huge marquee for VIP nuclear guests was already erected at the Hinkley site; champagne was already on ice; VIPs were en route to Somerset to party at the final breakthrough, when hundreds of thousands of contractual pages were due to be authorised with co-signatures of the contracting parties

All was abruptly cancelled, with the Chinese delegation - from the co-investors, Chinese National Nuclear Company -  returning to Heathrow to fly back to Beijing to try to explain why the celebration had so quickly turned sour.

So what really happened?

The most convincing explanation for the cold feet developed by the Prime Minister,Theresa May, is the influence of her newly re-appointed, but loyal, policy advisor, Nick Timothy, who had previously been her Chief of Staff before going off to become the Director of the New Schools Network.

Last October, out of Government, he wrote on the ConservativeHome website of his doubts about the UK nuclear industry collaborating with the Chinese sate investment bank and nuclear companies to build reactors in  the UK. (Nick Timothy: The Government is selling our national security to China; 20 October 2015;

Timothy wrote, inter alia, "Last month, on the same day George Osborne announced his desire to "formally connect" the London and Shanghai stock exchanges - and give an even greater role for China in building British nuclear power stations - the Chinese received a rather different message from Britain's principal ally across the Atlantic.

Shortly before President Obama hosted President Xi Jinping in the White House, Susan Rice, the American National Security Adviser, said that Chinese cyber-enabled espionage "isn't a mild irritation, it's an economic and national security concern to the United States." Not mincing her words any further, Rice said Chinese hacking "that targets personal and corporate information for the economic gain of businesses undermines our long-term economic cooperation and it needs to stop."

Although chemical, biological radioactive and nuclear materials remain highly attractive to terrorists, they are difficult to acquire, transport, handle and deploy without particular scientific knowledge and technology

We should expect no such plain speaking from the British Government today, as President Xi begins his state visit to London. In place of candour, we will see official press releases and ministerial speeches promising new investments, business partnerships and a "golden decade" in Sino-British relations.

During Xi's visit to London, the two governments will sign deals giving Chinese state-owned companies stakes in the British nuclear power stations planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk. It is believed that the deals could lead to the Chinese designing and constructing a third nuclear reactor at Bradwell in Essex.

Security experts - reportedly inside as well as outside government - are worried that the Chinese could use their role to build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain's energy production at will.

For those who believe that such an eventuality is unlikely, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation - one of the state-owned companies involved in the plans for the British nuclear plants - says on its website that it is responsible not just for "increasing the value of state assets and developing the society" but the "building of national defence." MI5 believes that "the intelligence services of...China...continue to work against UK interests at home and abroad."

Sir Iain Lobban, the former head of GCHQ, says there have been "attempts to steal British ideas and designs - in the IT, technology, defence, engineering and energy sectors, as well as other industries - to gain commercial advantage or to profit from secret knowledge of contractual arrangements."

Evidence like this makes it all the more baffling that the British Government has been so welcoming to Chinese state-owned companies in sensitive sectors.

The Government, however, seems intent on ignoring such evidence and presumably the advice of the security and intelligence agencies.

But no amount of trade and investment should justify allowing a hostile state easy access to the country's critical national infrastructure. Of course we should seek to trade with countries right across the world - but not when doing business comes at the expense of Britain's own national security."

Timothy was prescient in his concerns over nuclear security. Over the past two weeks while France and Germany have suffered a series of devastating terrorist attacks and many deaths, the nuclear industry in the UK has been quietly challenged by a series of very authoritative official watchdog bodies over nuclear security vulnerabilities.

On 13 July, in a coruscating critique of the ballooning costs and unreliability of UK nuclear power, the national financial watchdog, the National Audit Office issued a report Nuclear power in the UK, (HC 511 SESSION 2016-17), in which I include the following observation in a section headed The challenges of nuclear power 2.11.

There are specific challenges in ensuring that nuclear power is on an equal footing in the market with other low-carbon technologies: Nuclear power plants have very high upfront costs and take a long time to build. Costs have increased in recent years given the extra safety considerations following the Fukushima disaster and increasing terrorist threats. (

This has been followed up by a Parliamentary question by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas who asked Greg Clark  "what assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's costings for nuclear power of the findings of the National Audit Office in its report published in July 2016 on Nuclear power in the UK, HC 511, paragraph 2.11, on the effect on running costs of nuclear power facilities of increased terrorist threats.

A week earlier, on 7 July, to no media attention at all, the official UK nuclear safety and security regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, published its annual progress report. In a section headed Civil Nuclear Security (pages 37-38) it revealed: "Overall, the civil nuclear sector met its security obligations. There are areas where the duty holder's security arrangements did not fully meet regulatory expectations, and thesecontinue to be subject to our regulatory focus. (emphasis added) ( ONR has declined to elaborate what the problem is, on security grounds.

Then last week, Mrs May's former department, the Home Office, issued a report CONTEST, UK strategy for countering terrorism: annual report for 2015 with a section included on Resilience of Critical Infrastructure. Paragraph 2.57 of this report - which must have been prepared and signed off while Mrs May was still in charge of the Home Office - states: "We assess all risks to our Critical National Infrastructure, from flooding to cyberattack to terrorism, and work with operators to enhance our infrastructure security. We are reviewing infrastructure policing to ensure that the UK has the right capability to protect our national infrastructure and address national threats.

The scope includes the protection of civil nuclear and some military sites, (emphasis added) policing at airports and policing of the strategic road and rail network. A number of different national and local forces are currently responsible for policing this infrastructure. We expect the review to report to Ministers later this year.

It continued: in paragraph 2.51 "In 2015, as part of an ongoing programme, the Home Office invested substantially in radiological and nuclear screening at the UK border to ensure our systems remain amongst the best in the world. This has further strengthened our capabilities to identify and intercept illicit materials that may represent a threat to the UK's national security, or pose a public health risk." (emphasis added) (

In Europe too the nuclear terrorist spectre was raised this month by Europol the EU's Holland-based counter-terror agency. In its annual report issued on 20 July, it revealed under the chapter headed Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) substances:

"In former Soviet Union countries, nuclear and radioactive materials have continued to appear on the black market since the early 1990s. Nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon facilities in the EU remain an important target for jihadist terrorists or groups. The likelihood of a CBRN attack occurring is assessed as being low, but the consequences of such an incident remain serious. In 2015 no major terrorist incidents with chemical, biological, nuclear or other radioactive materials were disclosed by the EU Member States."

Although CBRN materials remain highly attractive to terrorists, they are difficult to acquire, transport, handle and deploy without particular scientific knowledge and technology. Nevertheless, several incidents in 2015 involved the actual or attempted malevolent use of CBRN materials with criminal or unknown intentions. In recent years, jihadist terrorists and their sympathisers have regularly expressed threats involving CBRN materials in their propaganda."

"Nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon facilities in the EU also remain potential targets for terrorists. Of note is a case that occurred in December 2015 in Belgium. It was reported that, during a house search of a suspect linked to the November Paris attacks, a video was found containing surveillance footage of a senior executive of a nuclear research site."

Thefts of radioactive sources are usually financially motivated, often due to the value of shielding containers or housing devices, and not necessarily for the source itself. In 2015 for example, two incidents involving the theft of radioactive sources, which are commonly used in various authorised applications in industry, medicine and research, were reported by Poland. Nevertheless, there were no reported cases of radioactive materials being used to deliberately injure or poison people.

In the European Union, trafficking cases are rare because nuclear and other radioactive materials are relatively well safeguarded, both by regulation and enforcement. However, in EU neighbouring former Soviet Union countries, nuclear and radioactive materials have continued to appear on the black market since the early 1990s. In 2015 incidents involving the attempted sale of radioactive materials by organised crime groups occurred in Moldova, Ukraine and Turkey. Although there is no information on potential links between the groups involved in these three cases and terrorist organisations, criminals with access to these materials can potentially play a role in acquiring and selling radioactive materials to terrorists." ("211 terrorist attacks carried out in EU Member States in 2015, new Europol report reveals,"

And with the Olympic games starting in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil next week, nuclear terror concerns have been raised there too. The Chinese press agency, Xinhua, reported on 21 July: Nearly 300 nuclear security experts will be deployed for the upcoming Olympic Games, Agencia Brasil reported on Wednesday. The nuclear security agents, trained in radiation detection, were also deployed at the 2014 World Cup of football.

"Close to 300 agents from the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN) are to be engaged in the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games," the agency added. "Their work will focus on the prevention and identification of nuclear risks and emergency situations, as well as the response to such incidents." (Nuclear security agents to be deployed for Rio Olympics,

None of this fear of nuclear terrorism is new, but it very rarely gets media reportage. Last year, Labour MP Paul Flynn, now the shadow Leader of the House of Commons, asked the Transport department: what assessment it had made of the fitness-for-purpose of the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying) (Nuclear Installations) Regulations 2007 and their applicability to technical developments for unmanned aerial vehicles since their coming into force in 2007. He was told in response by transport minister, Robert Goodwill on 21 December: "The airspace over UK nuclear licensed sites is restricted by the Air Navigation (Restriction of Flying) (Nuclear Installations) regulations 2007. These impose restricted airspace of a radius between 0.5 and 2 miles to a height of between 1000 and 2400 feet around the centre of all nuclear sites.

Airspace usage in the UK is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and so it is a criminal offence to fly in the vicinity of nuclear sites without the permission of the CAA. The CAA and nuclear sites work closely together on this." He added "All of Britain's nuclear power stations are robust and designed with safety in mind and are stress-tested to withstand a vast range of potential incidents. The independent regulator continuously monitors and evaluates the safety of each plant alongside the operator to protect it from outside threats. (Question: 20272)

A week earlier, on 17 December, Flynn was told by the then junior energy minister, Andrea Leadsom: "The security of the UK's civil nuclear sector is of paramount importance to the Government. The Nuclear Industry Malicious Capability Planning Assumptions (NIMCA) provide a common basis for determining the sector's required protective security posture. It is reviewed by DECC, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), and industry representatives on an annual basis.

To ensure that the NIMCA assumptions remain appropriate, these annual reviews are supplemented with assessments of threat information provided by the police and the intelligence agencies on an ongoing basis. Additionally, the ONR maintains a permanent presence within the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which guarantees the fastest possible identification and notification of intelligence that might indicate changes to present and foreseeable threats to civil nuclear sites. (Question: 20270)

It seems Mrs May's own chief policy advisor is not entirely convinced by these warm words.

This article was originally published on the author's own blog (


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