The UK government has for 15 years persistently backed the need for new nuclear power. Given its many problems, most informed observers can’t understand why. The answer lies in its commitment to being a nuclear military force. Here’s how, and why, anyone opposing nuclear power also needs to oppose its military use.
“All of Britain’s household energy needs supplied by offshore wind by 2030,” proclaimed Prime Minister Boris Johnson at last week’s online Conservative Party conference. This means 40 per cent of total UK electricity. Johnson did not say how, but it is likely, if it happens, to be by capacity auctions, as it has been in the recent past.
But this may have been a deliberate distraction: there were two further announcements on energy last week – both about nuclear power.
16 so-called “small nuclear reactors”
Downing Street told the Financial Times, which it faithfully reported, that it was “considering” £2 billion (AU$1.1 billion) of taxpayers’ money to support “small nuclear reactors” – up to 16 of them “to help UK meet carbon emissions targets”.
It claimed the first SMR is expected to cost £2.2 billion (AU$1.22 billion) and be online by 2029.
The government could also commission the first mini power station, giving confidence to suppliers and investors. Any final decision will be subject to the Treasury’s multiyear spending review, due later this year.
The consortium that would build it includes Rolls Royce and the National Nuclear Laboratory.
Support for this SMR technology is expected to form part of Boris Johnson’s “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” and new Energy White Paper, which are scheduled for release later in the autumn.
Johnson will probably also frame it as his response to the English citizens assembly recommendations – a version of the one demanded by Extinction Rebellion in 2019 – which reported its conclusions last month.
Where will they be built? In the town of Derby – the home of Rolls Royce – where, as nuclear consultant Dr David Lowry points out, the government is already using the budget of the Housing and Communities Department to finance the construction of a new advanced manufacturing centre site.
When asked why this site was not being financed by the business and energy department (BEIS), as you’d expect, a spokesperson responded that it was part of “levelling up regeneration money”.
Or perhaps BEIS did not want its budget used in such a way. Throwing money at such a “risky prospect” betrays “an irrationally cavalier attitude” according to Andrew Stirling, Professor of Science & Technology Policy at the University of Sussex Business School, because an “implausibly short time” is being allowed to produce an untested reactor design.
Only if military needs are driving this decision is it explicable, Stirling says. “Even in a worst case scenario, where this massive Rolls Royce production line and supply chain investment is badly delayed (or even a complete failure) with respect to civil reactor production, what will nonetheless have been gained is a tooled-up facility and a national skills infrastructure for producing perhaps two further generations of submarine propulsion reactors, right into the second half of the century.
“And the costs of this will have been borne not by the defence budget, but by consumers and citizens.”
Yes, military needs
UK defence policy is fully committed to military nuclear. The roots of civil nuclear power lay in the Cold War push to develop nuclear weapons. As such, it has been since the British public was told nuclear electricity would be “too cheap to meter”.
The legacy of empire and thrust for continued perceived world status are at the core of a post-Brexit mentality. It’s inconceivable to the English political elite that this status could exist without Great Britain being in the nuclear nations club, brandishing the totem of a nuclear deterrent.
“The civil-military link is undisputable and should be openly discussed,” agrees ?Dr Paul Dorfman at the Energy Institute, University College London.