Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Why the UK backed nuclear
The UK government has backed the Hinkley Point C nuclear project and is keen on several follow ups- maybe 16GWs in all, with perhaps many more to follow. The Hinkley decision was widely challenged, with even the Economists saying Hinkley was ‘pointless’: www.economist.com/news/leaders/21703367-britain-should-cancel-its-nuclear-white-elephant-and-spend-billions-making-renewables. The Telegraphs was similarly dismissive: www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/09/15/hinkley-point-will-be-obsolete-before-it-even-starts-but-theresa/
So why is all this happening?
The National Audit Office said that ‘supporting early new nuclear projects could lead to higher costs in the short-term than continuing to support wind and solar’. In which case ‘the decision to proceed with support for nuclear power therefore relies more on strategic than financial grounds: nuclear power is needed in the supply mix to complement the intermittent nature of wind and solar’. That last bit is odd - as the NAO admitted, nuclear is inflexible and can’t balance variable renewables. www.nao.org.uk/report/nuclear-power-in-the-uk
There must be other explanations. ‘We systematically examined a range of different possible reasons for official UK attachments to nuclear power’, says Emily Cox, a co-author of a report from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, but ‘none of these are satisfactory to explain the intensity of support for nuclear power maintained by a variety of UK Governments’. Especially since, as the report claims, civil nuclear power was recognised in the Government’s own detailed analyses to be expensive and otherwise ‘unattractive’ compared to other low carbon options. There may be other factors, but Cox said that from their review ‘it seems that pressures to continue to build nuclear submarines form a crucial missing piece in the jigsaw’.That conclusion seems a little odd. The team says that to acknowledge this possibility, ‘is not to entertain a conspiracy theory. It can be understood instead, in terms of more distributed and relational dynamics of power. Building on literatures in political science, we refer to this as a ‘deep incumbency complex’. Such an evidently under-visible phenomenon would hold important implications not only for UK nuclear strategies, but also the wider state of British democracy’. https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=2016-16-swps-cox-et-al.pdf&site=25s
The report documents strongly-held views in UK defence policy, that nuclear-propelled submarines form a crucial military capability, with, another co-author Dr Phil Johnstone noted, ‘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.’ The report identified many key links between UK submarine and civil nuclear supply chains.
According to the third co author, Professor Andrew Stirling, ‘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.’ Although they did find one defence policy document that considered the possibility to ‘mask’ some of the costs of nuclear submarine capabilities behind spending on civil nuclear power.
So it’s not the issue of nuclear weapons as such that’s driving civil nuclear, as some suggest, so much as the need for nuclear submarine power units. Well maybe, although that’s a relatively small industrial activity. But its expansion to help build Small Modular Reactors (similar in some ways to sub reactors, with Rolls Royce involved with both) might change that. But that’s still only part of the story: surely the overlap between the technologies for producing fissile material, and for the use of this material in nuclear plants, bombs and submarine power units, along with the perceived need for the retention of the associated expertise, may also play a role. See this earlier analysis: www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2530828/bombs_ahoy_why_the_uk_is_desperate_for_nuclear_power.html
That covers a lot more people- one way or another, the whole nuclear sector. And it links in to a wider issue, which arguably has played a larger role, employment protection. Much has been made of the number of jobs in the nuclear industry and the role of nuclear expansion for creating more. That has certainly had a major impact on trade union views, with the TUC and GMB union backing Hinkley: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/16/hinkley-point-good-enws-workers-economy-not-stop
It is interesting, in this context, to look back at the 1980’s when, after a protracted battle between pro and anti nuclear power unions, in 1986, in the wake on Chernobyl, the TUC backed a nuclear ‘moratorium and review’ policy. In the same year, the Labour Party had confirmed its 1985 anti-nuclear stance, with a two thirds majority for phasing out of civil nuclear. The then quite dominant Transport and General Workers Union said it was ‘clear and unambiguous in its position on nuclear power. We support a halt to nuclear expansion and a safe and planned phase out of nuclear power in this country’. So what changed?
The Labour Party had gone into the 1987 national election with a manifesto talking of ‘gradually diminishing Britain’s dependence upon nuclear energy’, but was unable to unseat the Tories, whose subsequent electricity privatisation and liberalisation programme put the unions on the defensive- they sought to protect energy jobs across the board. It seems they are still at it! A sub-text to that is the low level of conviction by most of the unions at that time that renewables could provide viable alternative employment. In it 1988 Nuclear Energy Review, the TUC said ‘renewables are not going to make a big contribution to Britain’s energy supplies over the next 20 years’. Well it’s taken 28 years but they are now big and growing, creating jobs. But still often blocked by the continued support for nuclear.
Whatever the reasons for the current commitment to nuclear, the reality is that its backing by some key unions makes it harder to challenge: www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jeremy-corbyn-facing-backlash-from-unions-momentum-chair-rachel-garrick-and-bill-esterson-over-hinkley-c-nuclear-plant-opposition_uk_579c874de4b0f42daa4a43c5 The claim that renewables can create more jobs may fall on deaf ears. Economic and safety arguments similarly. We are back where we started in the early 1980s. Then it was the slow patient grass roots lobbying work of groups like SERA, taking the arguments out to trade union and Labour Party branches, that eventually changed the mood- along with Chernobyl! Does all that have to be repeated? Do we have to challenge every silly assertion made by the likes to GMB all over again? Like this one: www.gmb.org.uk/newsroom/low-wind-days But also go on the offensive re jobs? Seems like it. Here’s a start: www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2988060/if_its_jobs_they_want_labour_and_the_unions_must_back_renewables_not_hinkley_c.html
And also the the ‘1 million climate jobs’ booklet produced by the Campaign on Climate Change: http://www.climate-change-jobs.org
For a full account of the twists and turns of Trade Union and Labour Party policy on nuclear power in the 1980s, see the series of OU Technology Policy Group reports I produced: TPG Occasional Papers No. 4 (1981), 14 (1987) and 17 (1988).
Also, for a much more recent input, see my ‘Green jobs and the ethics of energy’, in Hersh, M. (ed) ‘Ethical Engineering for International Development and Environmental Sustainability’ Springer, London: http://www.springer.com/gb/book/9781447166177
For a very different view of UK nuclear history see Simon Taylor’s ‘The Fall and Rise of Nuclear Power in Britain’. He sees the governments Chief Scientists, Sir David King and Sir David MacKay, as having playing key roles in recent developments: www.uit.co.uk/the-fall-and-rise-of-nuclear-power-in-britain