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 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 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.
While the new energy plan will also include carbon capture and storage, and using hydrogen as vehicle fuel, it’s the small modular reactors that are eye-popping.
They would be manufactured on production lines in central plants and transported to sites for assembly. Each would operate for up to 60 years, “providing 440MW of electricity per year — enough to power a city the size of Leeds”, Downing Street said, and the Financial Times copied.
The SMR design is alleged to be ready by April next year. The business and energy department has already pledged £18 million (AU$32.49 million) towards the consortium’s early-stage plans.
They are not small
The first thing to know about these beasts is that they are not small. 440MW? The plant at Wylfa (Anglesey, north Wales) was 460MW (it’s closed now). 440MW is bigger than all the Magnox type reactors except Wylfa and comparable to an Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor.
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. Thus has it ever 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.
Andrew Stirling talks of the “tragic relative popularity of (increasingly obsolescent) nuclear weapons”. The coincidental fact that civil nuclear installations are also crumbling provides a serendipitous opportunity for some.
The stores of plutonium in the UK are already overflowing and the military has its own dedicated uranium enrichment logistics.
Any nation’s defence budget in this day and age cannot afford a new generation of nuclear weapons. So it needs to pass the costs onto the energy sector.
“Clearly, the military need to maintain both reactor construction and operation skills and access to fissile materials will remain. I can well see the temptation for Defence Ministers to try to transfer this cost to civilian budgets,” observes Tom Burke, Chairman of think tank E3G.
The threat of nuclear proliferation
The threat of nuclear proliferation is therefore linked to the spread of civil nuclear power worldwide, says Dr David Toke, Reader in Energy Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen. David Lowry agrees: “India, Pakistan and above all Israel are obvious examples, each of which certainly has built nuclear weapons.”
It’s impossible to separate the tasks of challenging civil nuclear power without also challenging military nuclear interests, Stirling strongly believes. “The massive expense of increasingly ineffective military nuclear systems extend beyond the declared huge budgets. They are also propped up by large hidden subsidies from consumer and taxpayer payments for costly nuclear power.
“Huge hidden military interests will likely continue to keep the civil nuclear monster growing new arms. Until critics reach out and engage the entire thing, we’ll never prevail in either struggle.”
How new plants would be paid for still remains a question. Nuclear power is prohibitively expensive.
The second option for new nuclear
While Downing Street is pushing SMRs, BEIS has been looking for a way to finance the £20 billion Sizewell C reactor which EDF has been lobbying to build in Suffolk.This could be why it did not want to bankroll Rolls Royce’s expansion.
One idea being floated by BEIS is the government taking equity stakes in future nuclear plants such as Sizewell C, the energy minister has confirmed.
French energy company EDF is unable to continue with its plans for a new UK nuclear power station without even more government support than it has already had.
The CEO of EDF, Jean-Bernard Lévy, met the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak recently to beg for such support. The head of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven, wrote to the Chancellor saying giving support may be in EDF’s interests, but it is not in the UK’s. Nevertheless, the government is considering taking a direct stake in the project, using a “Regulated Asset Base” (RAB) financing model, where costs are added to consumers’ bills during construction.
This would still result in multibillion-pound liabilities showing on the government’s balance sheet. So the Treasury is studying whether the government should in return have equity stakes in EDF’s Sizewell plant.
The government previously offered to take a one-third stake in Hitachi’s Wylfa plant on Anglesey, but the Japanese company still scrapped the project last month – even then it was too expensive.
The RAB approach is being challenged anyway by the national nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, because it could introduce a dual regulator for the industry, which it does not regard as sensible or workable.
Renewables can supply UK energy needs and net zero targets sooner and cheaper than nuclear
Renewables are safer, cheaper, quicker to install and genuinely low carbon, with no fuel supply chain.
The Sizewell reactor could not realistically be supplying power until 2034 at the earliest, while wind and solar plants take less than two years to commission, on average.
The ability of the national grid to absorb more fluctuating renewable electricity input is improving, helped by the collapsing cost of batteries, and investment in hydrogen and other forms of storage.
The National Infrastructure Commission has testified that the absorption of 65 per cent renewables on the grid by 2030 is cost-effective – and more is technically achievable.
Implicitly recognising the truth of this, the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Adviser on nuclear science and technology matters, Robin Grimes, has just opened up another front against renewables.
Grimes is advocating nuclear power’s potential for cogeneration – using its “waste” heat for all manner of things from district heating and seawater desalination to synthetic fuel production and industrial process heat.
This is not likely to make much of a dent in the cost-benefit equation.
Alarm bells should be set ringing when you know that this same Grimes was also co-author of a once-secret report in 2014 for the Ministry of Defence where it was recommended that the UK nuclear submarine industry needs to forge links with civil nuclear power in order to extricate itself from the dire situation it is in.
This secret report discussed what to do about the radiation-leaking Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment, a military submarine reactor testing facility built in 1950 at Dounreay in Scotland.
Engineers with nuclear expertise are dying out with the reactors. New nuclear subs need a new supply chain and new expertise. What better place to tackle all these issues?
Rolls Royce and Dominic Cummings
This sad, radioactive site is operated by – guess who – Rolls-Royce (under the Vulcan Trials Operation and Maintenance contract).
And Rolls Royce is already benefiting from public money flowing into new nuclear. It has for years been lobbying the government to support its small nuclear reactors wheeze.
Its 2017 pitch document contained phrases like “providing 440MW of electricity per year — enough to power a city the size of Leeds” – that Downing Street has literally copied and pasted into the above article fed to the Financial Times.
It doesn’t take much insight to see that Rolls Royce has turned Boris Johnson’s right-hand elf – the one who hates energy efficiency – Dominic Cummings. One can see his hand in the push for SMRs, while BEIS is pushing support for Sizewell C.
Rolls Royce is axing up to 8,000 jobs because of the pandemic-related aviation crash. This troubled company is a huge symbol of Great Britain plc. Millions of public money for SMRs is just what it needs.
But to back both Sizewell and the SMRs would be far too expensive for the public purse, already heavily in debt because of the coronavirus pandemic. Burke believes the SMR pitch is “Cummings fight back against the public pressure for Sizewell from EDF and (Tom) Greatrex”.
Tom Greatrex is the Nuclear Industry Association’s chairman. In a Times article he recently called for “a strong and unambiguous statement of the need for new nuclear to be able to meet the net-zero target” with backing for Sizewell.
The PR battle for nuclear
There is a PR battle in the UK media for new nuclear – and now there are two sides to it.
Editors seem to favour giving pro-nuclear writers a clear ride and rarely question their baseless claims that nuclear is zero carbon. This is misguided and not based on empirical data, says Dr Lowry.
If the carbon footprint of the full uranium life cycle is considered – from uranium mining, milling, enrichment (which is highly energy intensive), fuel fabrication, irradiation, radioactive waste conditioning, storage, packaging to final disposal – nuclear power’s CO2 emissions are between 10 to 18 times greater than those from renewable energy technologies, according to a recent study by Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, California.
Another recent peer-reviewed article in Nature Energy shows that nations installing nuclear power don’t have lower carbon emissions, but those installing lots of renewables do. Moreover, investment in new nuclear “crowds out” investment in renewables.
Renewables therefore offer a more rapid and cost-effective means to address net zero targets. The opportunity cost of nuclear is severely negative. The 2019 version of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report comprehensively demolishes any evidence-based arguments on the utility of nuclear to help address climate change.
But that’s not the real argument. It’s military. At the very least, we deserve to be told.
David Thorpe is author of books such as Solar Technology and One Planet Cities. He also runs online courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.