Shining a light on the UK’s nuclear deterrent

Professor Andy Stirling and Dr Phil Johnstone have highlighted a lack of transparency between governments’ nuclear power programmes and their military nuclear capabilities.

A submarine out at sea

As nuclear power declines worldwide, it is striking how many countries that continue to expend costly support are either existing or aspiring nuclear weapons states.

So say Andy Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology Policy, and Research Fellow Dr Phil Johnstone, at the University of Sussex. Their research into the dependency of military nuclear capabilities on the support of civil nuclear programmes has been cited widely – not least in the UK.

From early working-paper findings to presenting evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the House of Commons, their research has raised important questions about accountability, transparency and the future role of the nuclear industry in a changing world.

It has also received major media attention, with stories in the Guardian, the BBC, Independent and New York Times, whilst their findings also culminated in questions being asked (and significant answers being obtained) in a UK Parliamentary Select Committee, many Parliamentary Questions posed in Westminster and a motion being passed through the Scottish Parliament.

But it hasn’t come without its frustrations. Since the academics first presented their findings to the House of Commons in 2017 – and then in numerous subsequent national and international press stories - the UK Government has not responded directly to the serious criticisms that arose concerning a lack of transparency and accountability. Invitations have been received to discuss these issues with official bodies, and the analysis has not been refuted, but it remains open what the Government itself will do.

Early findings

It’s been quite a journey from their initial research. In 2015, the academics published a working paper on German and UK nuclear power. It was here that the pair conducted an in-depth analysis to try to understand the different nuclear trajectories of the UK and Germany.

The findings of this research first pointed towards concealed UK motives for persisting with nuclear at a time when commentators and experts, virtually across the board, were suggesting the opposite: that it was in irreversible decline.

What was new about the Sussex analysis was that it looked beyond nuclear weapons to the hidden dependencies of the submarine industry on civil nuclear programmes.

“When we started out, the idea of civil programmes supporting military nuclear programmes, was met with significant scepticism.” says Stirling.

“Since then, through evidence submissions and continued output, there has been a gradual acceptance by some that the need to sustain key capabilities and skills in order to construct and maintain nuclear submarines is a significant factor driving the UK’s intense enthusiasm for new nuclear.”

A block in public openness

Things were about to speed up. In 2016, a detailed SPRU working paper asked why UK policy had been so intensely committed to nuclear power, with the findings clearly pointing to military links as a means for continuation.

As a result, questions were now being asked of the UK Government, with transparency – or the lack thereof – at the top of the agenda.

In 2017, the findings were first presented before the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons. The evidence found that a white paper into the UK’s energy policy was now “extraordinarily overdue”.

“It was very clear that the usual public policy processes were falling short,” says Stirling. “In this sense, it is not just our own analysis, but a matter of public record, that due consultation and analysis have not so much been “disregarded” as not performed at all.

“So, at the core of this issue is the fact that the intensity of official commitments to nuclear power by successive UK governments is largely due to factors that remain effectively undeclared.”

Hinkley Point C

Undoubtedly one of the most significant developments in recent times in relation to the UK’s nuclear strategy has been the go-ahead and development of Hinkley Point C, a large nuclear power station under construction in Somerset.

Since its inception, the project, which is being built by the French electricity company EDF, has been criticised on a number of grounds – not least its huge and escalating cost.

But it is the justification to build any new nuclear power station, as highlighted by this research, that raises legitimate questions about the role the UK government has played in this process: of willfully disregarding open, thorough consultation and analysis in order to carry on regardless with nuclear energy, without providing a legitimate reason why.

In evidence submitted to the PAC, the research concluded that the costs of the Trident programme could be “unsupportable” without “an effective subsidy, from electricity consumers to military nuclear infrastructure”.

In their evidence, the academics wrote that the £19.6bn Hinkley Point project would “maintain a large-scale national base of nuclear-specific skills” without which there is concern “that the costs of UK nuclear submarine capabilities could be insupportable”.

A hidden subsidy

This evidence suggested that changes in the government’s policy on nuclear power in recent years would effectively allow Britain’s military nuclear industry to be supported by payments from electricity consumers.

“The issue now is that UK citizens are unwittingly subsidising military nuclear activity through energy bills to the tune of many tens of billions of pounds,” points out Johnstone.

“However, growing ever more significant is the failure of the existing policy apparatus to engage with the criticisms in this regard. This highlights that one of the main issues here concerns the quality of UK policy processes and the health of UK democracy itself.”

As time goes on in this way, the underlying impact of this work expands beyond the immediate story. In part, say the researchers, it lies in the failure of the UK government to be accountable for the decisions it has made in relation to the future of the UK’s energy policy. It has become a transparency issue, one in which the effects aren’t just felt on a state level but amongst its citizens – for many years to come.

What now?

In a world where misinformation is rife, it wasn’t long until claims were made that the research amounted to a ‘conspiracy theory’– particularly with findings that have had such far-reaching consequences. But this is something that Stirling and Johnstone have taken in their stride.

“The few private and public accusations that our analysis is a conspiracy theory have now all largely abated,” says Stirling.

“Several academics, policy analysts and journalists, who used these terms right at the outset, have now all gone out of their way explicitly to tell us that they believe us to be correct.

“In one case, a nuclear advocacy organization, taking the trouble to criticise us this way in an early blog post, has since shifted its position to openly advocate precisely the links they previously dismissed as a conspiracy theory.”

All of this points to research that is still evoking a reaction, still engaging stakeholders across the community, and is reaching into the heart of the democratic process. It also indicates that the effects of the research haven’t yet reached their climax.

A growing tension

“The reaction so far in the UK and international press, the wider energy policy and academic communities suggests that our work is making a firm mark in a field where the stakes are extremely high,” says Johnstone.

“Although the UK Government has itself thus far tried to side-line the issue, it has become strongly acknowledged more widely – even to the point of becoming orthodoxy in many quarters. The lack of official engagement is growing ever more telling.”

Yet uptake of the analysis by many prominent bodies and individuals in this field leaves no doubt that public discussions around nuclear power in the UK and more widely have been strongly influenced by this research.

As Stirling points out: “A backdrop of continued silence on the part of government, as trends continue to unfold and evidence and commentary continues to accumulate, suggests eventual acknowledgement is growing more likely. This in turn suggests that the largest impacts have yet to emerge.”

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