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Britain’s nuclear power and nuclear weapons plans intrinsically linked

peaceful-nukeflag-UKShining a light on Britain’s nuclear state, Guardian, Phil Johnstone and  , 7 Aug 15 
Debates over Trident and energy policy are rarely joined up. But are there deeper links between Britain’s nuclear deterrent and its commitment to nuclear power? 
Two momentous issues facing David Cameron’s government concern nuclear infrastructure. The new secretary of state for energy, Amber Rudd, recentlyconfirmed her enthusiasm for what is arguably the most expensive infrastructure project in British history: the Hinkley Point C power station. At the same time, a decision is pressing on a similarly eye-watering commitment to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Ostensibly distinct, both of these issues are intensely controversialextremelyexpensiveagonisingly protracted, and often accompanied by vicious political rhetoric. Yet commentators rarely ask how these decisions might be connected. Could such links help to explain the strength of the UK’s nuclear lobby? Britain remains one of only a handful of countries committed to a “nuclear renaissance”, with senior government figures asserting the manifest falsehood that there is “no alternative” to nuclear power. Meanwhile, support for renewables and energy efficiency has been cut.

It seems that Whitehall is in denial about the widely acknowledged performance trends of nuclear power and renewables. The reality is that renewables manifestly outperform nuclear power as low carbon energy sources. Successive UK andinternational studies show they are already more competitive than nuclear. And renewables costs continue to fall. Yet after more than half a century of development (and far greater levels of cumulative public support), nuclear costs keep rising. The performance gap just keeps on growing.

Nor is there any good excuse for ignoring such overblown nuclear promises. Problems of reactor safetynuclear waste and weapons proliferation remain unsolved. Nuclear security risks are uniquely grave. With finance in question andtechnical difficulties mounting, the deteriorating prospects of the Hinkley project are the latest episode in a familiar pattern.

So why is the UK so persistent in pursuing new nuclear power? If the nuclear lobby is driving this, why have other countries with stronger nuclear industries nonetheless developed far more sceptical positions? In the case of Germany, this has meant the country with the world’s most successful nuclear industry and a less attractive renewable resource than the UK, nonetheless undertaking a wholesale shift from one to the other.


One striking factor is an apparently strong correlation between those countries most eager to construct new nuclear with those expressing a desire to maintain nuclear weapons. But care is needed before jumping to conclusions. Historically,links between enthusiasms for nuclear power and nuclear weapons are well-explored. Almost all the attention here has focused on possibilities for diverting nuclear weapons materials like highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These connections were crucial in early nuclear developments, and remain so in contemporary proliferation threatsBut it is highly doubtful they explain the UK situation. An elaborate global nuclear safeguards regime introduces formidable barriers. And the UK has since the end of the Cold War maintained enormous gluts of key weapons materials………

the links between UK civilian nuclear power and military interests in nuclear submarines run deep. What is remarkable is the complete lack of discussion these provoke in the media, public policy documents, or wider critical debate. Yet the stakes are very high. Does the commitment to a submarine based nuclear deterrent help to explain the intensity of high-level UK support for costly, risky and slow nuclear power, rather than cheaper, quicker and cleaner renewable technologies?

If so, the conclusions are not self-evident. For some supporters of a nuclear deterrent, the additional burdens of nuclear power may seem entirely reasonable. But the almost total silence on these connections raises crucial implications for democracy. Imminent decisions that the government must take over nuclear power and the nuclear deterrent are hugely significant. There is a responsibility on all involved to be open and accountable. Otherwise, it will not just be electricity consumers and taxpayers that pay the price, but British democracy itself.

Phil Johnstone is a research fellow and Andy Stirling is a professor of science and technology policy at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex.

August 7, 2015 - Posted by | politics, UK, weapons and war

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