Why is the UK government so committed to building new nuclear power stations, despite the high costs and many attractive alternatives? Research published by the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex shows that it is the Government’s attachment to nuclear submarines which is an important factor in the pro-nuclear bias in UK energy policy.
Despite widespread criticism, the UK government of Conservative PM Theresa May decided last month to approve the controversial Hinkley Point C nuclear power project. In fact, this is only the first project in an ambitious attempt by the government to revive the British nuclear power sector. It has plans to build 16 GW of new nuclear power, of which the 3.2 GW Hinkley Point C plant is only the start.
What is even more remarkable is that the Government’s own detailed analyses show nuclear power to be an expensive and otherwise “unattractive” solution compared to other low carbon options.
A new report ‘Understanding the Intensity of UK Policy Commitments to Nuclear Power’, written by Emily Cox, Phil Johnstone and Andy Stirling of the University of Sussex, offers an explanation, based on detailed research, that has so far been neglected in the public debate. The researchers show that the UK government’s desire to maintain its nuclear weapons capability is an important factor in the pro-nuclear bias of its energy policy.
“What this research suggests is that British low carbon energy strategies are more expensive than they need to be, in order to maintain UK military nuclear infrastructures”
They note that the UK’s nuclear-propelled submarines, regarded in defence circles as a crucial military capability, are among the most complex engineered artefacts in the world. They cannot easily be built or maintained by a country with a declining manufacturing base not engaged in civil nuclear power.
“On the military side, we found strong fears that without continued commitment to civil nuclear power, the UK would be unable to sustain the industrial capabilities necessary to build nuclear submarines,” said report co-author Dr Phil Johnstone. (See this blog post on the University of Sussex website.)
“We systematically examined a range of different possible reasons for official UK attachments to nuclear power”, said report co-author Emily Cox. “None of these are satisfactory to explain the intensity of support for nuclear power maintained by a variety of UK Governments. It seems that pressures to continue to build nuclear submarines form a crucial missing piece in the jigsaw”.
“The Government’s own data shows the UK to be blessed with abundant, secure and competitive renewable energy resources”, said report co-author Professor Andy Stirling, “In a world turning much more to renewables than nuclear power, Britain might be expected to be taking a lead in these new technologies. Yet a greater priority in UK policy making appears to lie in maintaining ‘nuclear submarine capabilities’.”
According to the researchers, “Parliamentary Select Committee Reports and many other policy documents on the military side reveal intense pressures for strong Government support for skills and training, design and manufacturing and research and regulatory capabilities linking with the civil nuclear industry.”
The report shows that “these military pressures reached a peak in the crucial period 2003-2006 – with many new policy measures following on since then spanning civil and military sectors. During that same period, UK energy policy underwent a dramatic U-turn that has remained unexplained until now – from a view of nuclear power as ‘unattractive’, to a commitment to a ‘nuclear renaissance’.”
“What is remarkable about this pressure for a nuclear bias is that it is well documented on the military side, yet remains completely unacknowledged anywhere in official UK energy policy documentation”
“What this research suggests”, said Johnstone, “is that British low carbon energy strategies are more expensive than they need to be, in order to maintain UK military nuclear infrastructures. And without assuming the continuation of an extremely expensive UK civil nuclear industry, it is possible that the costs of Trident would be significantly greater”.
According to the authors, their research “illuminates many important cross-overs between UK submarine and civil nuclear supply chains. One defence policy document even considers the possibility to ‘mask’ some of the costs of nuclear submarine capabilities, behind spending on civil nuclear power.”
“What is remarkable about this pressure for a nuclear bias”, said Stirling, “is that it is well documented on the military side, yet remains completely unacknowledged anywhere in official UK energy policy documentation. This raises serious questions about the transparency and accountability of decision making in this area – and the quality of British democracy in this regard”.