Hidden military implications of ‘building back’ with new nuclear in the UK via Responsible Science Journal

Dr Phil Johnstone and Prof Andy Stirling, University of Sussex, examine the entanglements between Britain’s civilian and military nuclear programmes and ask, would the UK be building new nuclear power stations if it weren’t for pressure from the military lobby?

Article from Responsible Science journal, no.3; online publication: 20 September 2021

At a time when such discussions are muted in academic enquiry, media coverage and wider energy policy, Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) have provided crucial analysis of the role that militaries play in influencing the direction and speed of low carbon transitions. [1]  Indeed it is remarkable given the central role that war and the military have played in past energy transitions and how large global military spending continues to be, [2] that there seem only such marginal levels of academic curiosity regarding how contemporary energy system dynamics might be shaped by military imperatives. There is tendency in contemporary analysis of ‘sustainability transitions’ for example, to treat energy and other ‘systems’ as discrete and bounded, governed by their own internal properties and seemingly disconnected from wider dynamics. This leaves questions of how military ambitions shape the direction of energy policy trajectories almost entirely unaddressed.

A key example of these tendencies can be seen in conventional energy policy analysis of UK commitments to new nuclear power, the UK being one of the few OECD countries still enthusiastically pursuing the technology.  As we discuss below, given the now clear disadvantages of new nuclear compared to renewables, this commitment does not make sense when considered simply within the confines of energy policy rationales. What we have outlined through research spanning several years, is that a key driver of the UK’s intense enthusiasm for new nuclear reactors stems from elite imperatives to sustain the capabilities, skills, and supply chain activities necessary for Britain to build, maintain, and operate the nuclear propelled submarines that underpin its nuclear weapons system. In other words, civil nuclear channels a subsidy towards military nuclear activities. […]

The oddity of UK nuclear commitments

We are currently living through momentous and global shifts in energy systems. Over the past decade, renewables have surpassed official expectations with rapid construction and plummeting costs. Renewables now increasingly offer the cheapest energy sources worldwide. [3]  As highlighted by recent Lazard data, cost advantages of renewables over new nuclear now typically dwarf costs of managing intermittency. [4]  Costs of batteries and other storage and grid management options are also declining rapidly. [5]  Between 2010-2019 wind costs fell globally by 70% and solar costs by 89%. [4]  Nuclear costs on the other hand, have risen by 26% over the past decade. [4]  Indeed, global nuclear new build continues to stagnate. [6]  It is plagued by delays and cost overruns [6] with leading nuclear companies face bankruptcy or potential insolvency. [7]  Some are withdrawing entirely from nuclear investment, because it is no longer ‘economically rational’. [8]  Much touted predictions of a global ‘nuclear renaissance’ since the early 2000s have simply not materialised. [6]  

The UK’s long running ‘nuclear renaissance’ has performed particularly poorly, with costs tripling, [9] delays of nearly ten years for the only new power station under construction, and new nuclear very seriously failing to contribute towards the aims of rapid emissions reductions and energy security “significantly before 2025”.  The National Audit Office (NAO) and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that the Hinkley C nuclear project could “lock in” consumers to a “bad deal” that will “hit the poorest households the hardest”. [10,11]  Indeed, while new nuclear was originally justified on grounds of economic benefits, [12] the government’s own figures show that even when integration costs are considered, renewables are now far cheaper. [13]  During this period of stark failure in initially firm nuclear policy commitments, renewables have climbed from under 10% of electricity generation in 2010 to 43% in 2020. [14]

With very few companies left investing in new nuclear worldwide, the UK government is mounting a desperate attempt to secure nuclear investment through even more extravagant financial arrangements – including forcing consumers to pay upfront for potential cost overruns under a ‘regulated asset base’ (RAB) or direct government financing. [15]  Meanwhile, intense enthusiasm for entirely untested Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) continues despite these technologies being irrelevant for rapid climate action and almost certainly more expensive than conventional reactors. [16]

As we have documented, [17] this intense enthusiasm is particularly odd by comparison with a country like Germany, that is phasing out nuclear power. The UK has a far more abundant and cost-effective renewable resource and a nuclear industry that performs particularly poorly when compared with Germany and other countries. [18]  It is the UK with its abundant renewables resource that stands in the best position to enact a transition to a non-nuclear future and reap the benefits of investment and jobs in renewables. Yet the relentless obsession for new nuclear continues. This obsession makes no sense – until we consider that Britain is a nuclear weapons state.


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