Japan Inc exit from nuclear exports would leave field to Russia, China

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Nuclear reactors A (left) and B are seen at Hinkley Point nuclear power station near Cannington in southwest England, January 17, 2018. Image: Reuters

TOKYO/PARIS

The possible withdrawal of Japanese conglomerates from nuclear export projects in Britain and Turkey would leave the nuclear newbuild industry open to Russian and Chinese state-owned companies as Western private firms struggle to compete.

Japanese media reported this month that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) was set to scrap the Sinop nuclear project in Turkey as cost estimates had nearly doubled to around 5 trillion yen ($44 billion).

Last week, Hitachi was reported to be considering whether to scrap its 3 trillion yen Horizon nuclear project in Britain as cost estimates had risen, while Toshiba liquidated its UK project this year.

A source involved in the Turkish project told Reuters MHI had effectively abandoned it.

He said the deal, signed in 2013 between Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, had been too ambitious. The project, earmarked for a country with no nuclear tradition, would have been the first to use the untested Atmea reactor developed by MHI and France’s Areva, the source noted.

MHI Chief Executive Shunichi Miyanaga said this month it was up to the Turkish and Japanese governments to decide on the project, adding that Turkey was examining a feasibility study MHI had submitted.

Hitachi’s Horizon project to build reactors at two UK sites – the first at Wylfa Newydd, Wales – is now also uncertain. Hitachi has said it will make a final decision next year.

Horizon said it had been in talks with the UK government since June, when business minister Greg Clark said Britain may invest directly in the project.

“We’ve been in negotiations with the government regarding financing of Wylfa Newydd,” a spokesperson said.

The government declined to elaborate.

Hitachi is seeking new investors for Horizon so the company can cut its stake to below 50 percent, but the project cannot be profitable under current conditions, a Hitachi executive said.

Hitachi hopes Britain will make up its mind by April.

“The political situation makes it impossible for the government to take action now … but there are limits to how long Hitachi can wait,” the executive said, referring to Britain’s protracted negotiations on leaving the European Union.

Nuclear cooperation will be on the agenda of Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Britain next month.

Hitachi hopes a group of Japanese investors and Britain each will take a third of the equity portion of the project. A company source said the project would be financed one third by equity, two thirds by debt.

Japanese media have reported Hitachi would need to book a 270 billion yen ($2.4 billion) loss if it abandoned Horizon. An industry source said Hitachi had already spent $2 billion on it.

A second Hitachi executive said the company cannot walk away from Horizon as it has other business interests in Britain.

“The company may freeze the project unless conditions are met, but can never walk away,” the source said.

Toshiba last month scrapped its British NuGen project after its U.S. reactor unit Westinghouse went bankrupt and it failed to sell NuGen to South Korea’s KEPCO.

RUSSIA, CHINA FACE-OFF

With Japan’s export prospects severely curtailed, the global nuclear market is virtually in the hands of Russia’s Rosatom and two Chinese reactor builders.

Two privately owned Western nuclear firms – Westinghouse and France’s Framatome – were restructured following losses and have no new foreign orders at the moment.

“Without Horizon, Japan is left without a nuclear project abroad … this is becoming a Russia/China-dominated industry,” said a consultant who advises one of Japan’s nuclear groups.

China has a foot in the door in Britain, where state-owned CGN co-finances EDF’s Hinkley Point project and has a deal to build its own reactor, which would be the first Chinese reactor constructed outside Asia.

Russia and China are already facing off in Latin America, where a Chinese deal to build a reactor in Argentina seems to be unravelling and Russia is muscling in.

An industry source familiar with the situation said China-Argentina talks had stalled. “Something fell apart. It is not an accident that the Russians are there now,” he said.

A Beijing-based nuclear industry consultant said it was significant that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not mention nuclear in a recent speech about China-Argentina cooperation.

“The Chinese project, if it is not canceled, it is at least postponed,” the consultant said.

Reuters