SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Research shows link between civil and military nuclear in UK

Major attention is being given to research by Prof Andy Stirling and Dr Phil Johnstone, which shows there is a link between the UK’s military submarine-related nuclear activities and civil new build agendas.

They identify that the need to maintain submarine nuclear capabilities in the military sector has played an influential role in the UK’s decisions to champion nuclear power. The findings have been profiled in a Guardian news story (12 October 2017), which highlights the potentially “extremely expensive” cost of this subsidisation for electricity consumers.

In investigating military documentation, the authors found previously unacknowledged links between civil and defence programmes. Their findings provide a compelling explanation for the UK’s resolute commitment to new nuclear energy projects (such as Hinkley Point C), despite the widespread criticism of its economic and technical feasibility.

In written evidence submitted to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Inquiry on Hinkley Point C, Prof Stirling and Dr Johnstone highlighted a number of “significant but neglected queries” over public accounting for UK nuclear power. They wrote:

“The issues arise in the problem that growing recognition of the seriously unfavourable costs of HPC [Hinkley Point C] when compared with other low carbon energy, appears to be having little effect on the intensity of UK Government commitments to nuclear power. We outline evidence that the persistence of these nuclear attachments, despite adverse economics, is partly due to a perceived need to subsidise the costs of operating and renewing the UK nuclear-propelled submarine fleet.

This military nuclear infrastructure shares with civil nuclear power a necessity to maintain a large-scale national base of nuclear-specific skills, research, training, design, engineering, industrial and regulatory capabilities. Without large revenue flows to this highly-specialised joint industrial base from civil nuclear supply chains ultimately funded by electricity consumers, we document clear concern in defence policy debates, that the costs of UK nuclear submarine capabilities could be insupportable.”

In the Committee’s subsequent oral evidence session (9 October 2017), its Chair Meg Hillier MP drew on this evidence to question Stephen Lovegrove CB (Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Defence) on whether “Hinkley is a great opportunity to maintain our nuclear skills base” (Q84).

His response confirmed that there had been talks with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) on the subject, and acknowledged that:

“As a nation we are going into a fairly intense period of nuclear activity... We have at some point to renew the warheads, so there is very definitely an opportunity here for the nation to grasp in terms of building up its nuclear skills… it is going to require concerted Government action to make it happen.” (Q84-5)

Through a series of written questions to the Ministry of Defence, Caroline Lucas MP (Leader of the Green Party) has been querying “the relevance of UK civil nuclear industry skills and supply chains to the maintaining of UK nuclear submarine and wider nuclear weapons capabilities”. Responding to these, Harriett Baldwin MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Ministry of Defence) has confirmed that:

“We engage regularly with counterparts from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), other Government Departments and industry, to address the issue of nuclear skills across both the defence and civil nuclear sectors, and will continue to do so… In all discussions it is fully understood that civil and defence sectors must work together to make sure resource is prioritised appropriately for the protection and prosperity of the United Kingdom.”

Speaking at the annual Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Conference on 14 October 2017, Mrs Lucas MP declared:

“Nobody could possibly justify Hinkley C… The only way that I think we can explain the ideological obsession with Hinkley – with nuclear power – is because of the cross-subsidy between nuclear power and nuclear weapons… I’ve just been asking some parliamentary questions in the last few weeks, helped very much by Professor Andy Stirling at Sussex University. And now it’s getting on the record, coming back from the government – the fact that they are conceding, effectively, that our heating bills are directly subsidising nuclear weapons... So let us never forget that those two things are utterly interconnected.”

Rolls Royce have also formally acknowledged the benefits that a civil nuclear reactor programme has for the military nuclear submarine industry, in their bid to secure governmental funding for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

Last autumn, to coincide with the government’s green light for Hinkley Point C, Prof Stirling, Dr Johnstone and Emily Cox published a SPRU Working Paper titled ‘Understanding the Intensity of UK Policy Commitments to Nuclear Power.’ The report illuminates many important cross-overs between UK submarine and civil nuclear supply chains.

Begun in 2013, as part of the ESRC-funded Discontinuity in Technological Systems (DiscGo) project, Prof Stirling and Dr Johnstone’s research has gained significant UK and international coverage in the New York Times, Die Tageszeitung (Germany) and the Climate News Network.