UK spies will go through the blueprints of computer systems of nuclear plants due to be built by Chinese firms in the UK in a bid to allay security concerns, The Times reports.
GCHQ’s role in the assessment was confirmed on the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping's four-day state visit to the UK.
Security chiefs have reportedly raised concerns with ministers about the security implications of deciding to allow Chinese companies with links to the military establishment to obtain a stake in three planned nuclear power plants. During his visit President Xi is expected to sign an agreement to team up with French energy firm EDF to build plants Hinkley Point and Sizewell, Suffolk, following negotiations over the weekend. Related plans are set to give China the go-ahead to design and build its own plant at Bradwell, Essex.
The UK government has courted China as a key trading partner but the country is also seen as a persistent source of cyber-espionage against UK corporate, particularly aerospace companies and military contractors.
The Treasury is reportedly pushing the £17bn nuclear scheme through in the face of concerns the software backdoors might be planted on nuclear power plant networks or associated industrial control kit. UK intelligence agencies have been consulted over the deal, with GCHQ poised to assume a key role in reviewing the technology.
“GCHQ has a remit to support the cybersecurity of private-sector-owned critical national infrastructure projects, including in the civil nuclear sector and nuclear new builds, when invited to do so by the lead government department involved,” a spokesman said.
The issue of components from Chinese developed technology playing a key role in UK infrastructure systems is in itself not new. Comparable concerns were raised in when BT selected Huawei to supply core networking equipment. The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) was set up to allay security concerns. The involvement of Huawei personnel in that process was questioned by some but an overview board chaired by Ciaran Martin, DG for Cyber Security at GCHQ, gave the Chinese networking giant the all-clear.
Separately, the nuclear deal with China was criticised by a group of 21 British scientists and academics who have written to The Times to accuse the government of embarking on a “slash and burn” policy towards renewable energy in order to fund nuclear power stations. UK government subsidies on “clean energy” were reduced in August with a 90 per cent cut in the “feed-in tariff” available for rooftop solar panels as well as reductions in funding for offshore wind power farms. ®