The U.K.’s hopes for a fleet of new nuclear plants, potentially exceeding 13,000 MW, took another hit when Japan’s Hitachi Ltd. recently pulled out of a major project in Wales. With Chinese investment in two other projects alsolmore doubtful, only the 3,300MW Hinkley Point C project in Somerset, England, has so far progressed to construction

Having suspended development work on the Welsh two-unit plant at Wylfa Newydd in January 2019, Hitachi earlier this month announced that the already difficult investment environment had “become increasingly severe due to the impact of COVID-19.” The company wrote off $2.8 billion of investment in the Welsh plant last year.

Hitachi’s departure followed the Toshiba Corp.’s decision in late 2018 to quit the 3,400-MW Moorside plant, in Cumbria. It had failed to find co-investors for its Westinghouse powered project.

With uncertainty growing, Hinkley Point C is the only U.K. nuclear project o have started work, which is so far largely on schedule, according to Electricité de France (EdF), which controls 66.5% of the deal. China General Nuclear Corp. owns 33.5% of project, which will be powered by two French EPR pressurized water reactors.

Hitachi’s withdrawal from the U.K. market has alarmed supporters of the nuclear industry, since it also casts a cloud over the planned 3,340-MW Sizewell C project in Cumbria.

“For the first time in a generation the U.K has developed a world class nuclear construction and engineering supply chain. Without Sizewell C, we will not sustain it,” says Cameron Gilmour, spokesperson for the Sizewell C Consortium lobby group of key companies in the sector.

The Sizewell C plant would replicate Hinkley Point C and is “shovel ready” according to Gilmour. The U.K. Planning Inspectorate is considering an application for the project submitted this May. The agency's recommendations will end up on the government’s desk for a final decision at some point.

However, general investment uncertainties and increasingly frosty relations between the U.K and Chinese governments bode ill for the deal, says Stephen Thomas, an energy policy specialist at the University of Greenwich, London.

Set up under a previous conservative administration, the Hinkley Point C deal included CGNC’s participation as a junior partner in Sizewell C. Also, CGNC would have full responsibility for a proposed 2,300 MW Bradwell plant in Essex.

Bradwell would be a global showcase for the technology as it would be the first plant in an industrialized country to use the Chinese Hualong One reactors, Thomas says.

However, the Chinese government was angered over the U.K.’s rejection this July of Huawei technology for the cell phone networks. At the same time, criticism by the country’s lawmakers of China’s participation in critical infrastructure is increasing.

Both developments make the Bradwell deal uncertain. And if Bradwell falls, the Chinese are unlikely to remain merely as passive, junior investors in Sizewell C, potentially scuppering the whole deal, says Thomas.

Investment uncertainties lie at the heart of the U.K.’s fading nuclear hopes. The government offered the Hitachi team a far less generous deal than the one secured by EdF for Hinkley Point C.

While the Hinkley deal protects U.K. electricity consumers from cost escalations, it comes at a high price, according to Thomas. The deal is based on a “contract for differences” which sets an index linked energy price of $120 per MWh at 2012 prices for 35 years. That is hugely more than the $51 per MWh now being bid for offshore wind contracts, he says.

For subsequent deals, the government last year turned to the Regulatory Asset Base (RAB) form of funding used by water and types of utilities. Rather than having a target energy price, electricity tariffs would be controlled by the regulator, which would consider factors such as need for investment and a fair rate of return on capital.

The government completed a review of the system this January but has yet to make a decision, adding to investment uncertainty, says Thomas.

Meanwhile, in the west of England, contractors recently placed the 170-tonne base of the second reactor’s steel containment liner at Hinkley Point on time, despite pandemic working restrictions.

EdF claims to have met critical path goals during the pandemic, but it has yet to reveal the extent of delays on other parts of the job. The site’s workforce is now back to its pre-pandemic level of 4,500 having fallen to 2,000 after February.

Civil and building work is being handled by a joint venture of Paris-based Bouygues Travaux Publics and the U.K.’s Laing O’Rourke Plc. in a contract signed in late 2017, then valued at around $3.6 billion.

However, “challenging ground conditions” and additional design effort have contributed to an overall project cost rise to $29 billion from around $23 billion in 2016, reports EdF. The company still plans to commission the first unit in 2025, but the project has yet to enter its trickier nuclear component phase, officials concede.

Europe’s only two other projects using the same reactor design and involving Bouygues are hugely over schedule. Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 plant and EdF’s flagship French project at Flamanvile are both running about a decade late.

With this track record and future financing doubts, prospects for new projects around the world look bleak, says Thomas.

But nuclear power “has had a history of climbing out of the coffin,” he adds.