Submerged origins of UK nuclear lock-in?

By Andy Stirling, STEPS Co-Director and Phil Johnstone, Research Fellow at SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit

Many legitimately contrasting views are possible on the pros and cons of nuclear power. But when seen in a global context, successive UK Governments are quite striking in their tendencies to adopt partisan positions. Growing evidence is persistently ignored concerning rising costs, disastrous accidents, long lead times and political barriers, unsolved waste problems, major construction difficulties, seriously unenthusiastic financiers, radically improved renewables, the dramatic example of Germany, the key findings of authoritative international assessments – and overwhelming trends elsewhere in the world. So, why is the UK so uniquely vigorous in pursuing a “nuclear renaissance”? Are UK policy debates especially parochial or uninformed? Or are there other considerations that make this apparently irrational commitment more reasonable, but which remain obscured?

If so, there have been moments when the veil has lifted. This has occurred briefly in the past, for instance in the crisis following the abortive attempt to privatise nuclear power in 1989. The most recent and arguably most substantive episode, however, was the Labour Government’s 2003 Energy White Paper, which analysed the above kinds of evidence and firmly concluded nuclear power to be “unattractive”. Policy moved instead towards renewables and energy efficiency. The report on which this was largely based, came out of the newly-formed ‘Performance and Innovation Unit’ (PIU). This was a key innovation in UK Government – relaxing the usual Whitehall stranglehold in filtering external advice. Rather than ensuring alignment with pre-committed policy, the PIU recruited external experts on independently-evaluated merit. Albeit short-lived, this innovation seems to have contributed to Whitehall – for a rare moment in this field – losing control of the advice it received.

What followed, was an unseemly – but illuminating – sequence of events. Over the ensuing few years, a dramatic U-turn took place, entirely reversing the 2003 policy. First, the Labour leadership emphatically rejected their own White Paper. They quickly convened instead, a further far more rapid and superficial ‘Nuclear Review’. When this was itself later overturned by a judicial review on grounds of serious procedural inadequacies, the Prime Minister remarked that any such further appraisal won’t affect the policy at all”. The UK nuclear commitment evidently runs deep.

Nor was this pattern unique. Other examples can be found of temporary loss of control. For instance, the Liberal Democrats performed a similar nuclear U-turn in 2010, essentially reversing their previously strong critical opposition, but with no clear reason. Taking these and other examples together, the question is: how to explain this oddity? Why is the UK so out of line in its nuclear policy, in placing so much effort towards sustaining new nuclear – seemingly at any cost. The contrast – for instance with the world’s most successful advanced industrial economy in Germany – seems on the face of it to be rather hard to understand.

But is it? One unhelpful feature of British nuclear debates is the degree of polarisation. For instance, senior figures like former Chief Scientist Sir David King asserted when in office, the manifest fallacy that there is no alternative to nuclear power. When challenged, his position retreated to a revealingly nonspecific we need to do everything”. But radical improvements in energy diversity are readily achievable, if so wished, without recourse to nuclear power. So, when faced with this further challenge, the real depth of official nuclear fixation became clear in the circular ideology that “we need to keep the nuclear option open. Now out of office, however, it is significant that Sir David is able to concede that “we may not need nuclear”.

In the face of such official bias, nuclear critics have also for their part tended to be somewhat dismissive. The partisan irrationality of high level Whitehall commitments to nuclear have seemed so unassailable, that they hardly warrant investigation. The covert efficacy of the ‘nuclear lobby’ is simply taken as a fact of life, with little attempt to determine exactly how it works.

We’re not satisfied with this. Perhaps the reasoning behind UK nuclear commitments warrants greater respect… and critical attention? In particular, perhaps more consideration should be given to correlations between worldwide national enthusiasms for nuclear power and nuclear weapons? This is of course, a longstanding and well-explored area. An elaborate global nuclear safeguards regime targets potential links involving nuclear weapons materials like highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These links were crucial in the early days of nuclear technology – and remain so in contemporary nuclear proliferation threats. But it is doubtful these links explain the UK situation. Enormous gluts of key weapons materials join with stringent policing by international agencies operating under the world’s most important security treaties, to make contemporary UK nuclear weapons manufacture effectively independent of continued civilian nuclear power.

But we have a significantly different question. What if the global status that comes with nuclear deterrence – like the permanent seat at the Security Council ‘top table’ – exercises a different discipline? What if this is less to do with the specific glamour of nuclear materials, and more about general (less visible and more mundane) considerations around professional training, design expertise, specialist engineering and regulatory capabilities? Instead of the arcane particularities of nuclear weapons, perhaps the threat concerns the more ambiguous but pervasive ‘technological systems’ needed to maintain the nuclear-propelled submarine infrastructures? It is, after all, these amazing feats of engineering whose range, capacities and undetectability aspire to make nuclear deterrence credible. And as current debates over the course of the election have emphasised – these in their turn rely on very particular skill sets, supply chains and industrial networks.

The question is then, by analogy with other countries, whether there is something akin to a UK ‘deep state’ (or ‘deep structure’ or ‘dual state’ or ‘double government’), worried that it will no longer be able to sustain its cherished elite identity on the world stage, without a nuclear power industry? In the long run, loss of national civilian nuclear capacities, may erode key capabilities required for an indigenous nuclear deterrent. And this predicament may be aggravated by the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between the US and UK concerning transfer of vital nuclear submarine technology, which reportedly prevents involvement of other countries in the associated supply chains. Where these kinds of priorities come to the fore, they might be enough to make nuclear power look ‘attractive’, despite an overwhelmingly negative wider picture?

The dilemma is, that separation between civilian and military nuclear activities is one of the most sacrosanct principles in global politics. It forms (eg: currently between the US, Iran and Israel), one of the most imminent threats of major interstate war. And – like other nations – the UK is bound by numerous treaty commitments which are foundational to the international order. So, if this linkage with nuclear submarines were a reason for otherwise inexplicable levels of UK Government support for nuclear power, it would be naïve to expect this to be frankly declared.

At face value, this hypothesis might seem quite speculative. But there are some intriguing indications otherwise. Whilst – as might be expected – there are no ‘smoking guns’, the period after the episode described above, does on close inspection provide interesting circumstantial evidence. In the years immediately following the ‘loss of control’ of nuclear power policy described above in 2003, a flurry of intense activity saw a series of initiatives behind the scenes to mount a recovery.

In April 2004, for instance, a well-funded consortium of nuclear industry, trade union and nuclear-dependent local authorities launched the Keep Our Future Afloat Campaign (KOFAC) – aimed at maintaining what was held to be a threatened UK nuclear-propelled submarine industry. Recognised in Parliament as among the country’s most effective lobby groups, KOFAC’s lobbying activities were not confined to the military sector, but also involved enthusiastic engagement in energy policy consultations – highlighting the importance of sustaining a shared skills pool for both the military and civilian nuclear sectors. Anxious parliamentary briefings appeared, large research grants were awarded, and even regulatory agencies joined the clamour to “keep the nuclear option open”.

Evidently commissioned shortly after the 2003 White Paper, the Government received in 2005 a major report from the US-based RAND Corporation. This detailed risks to continued nuclear submarine capabilities and the deterrent more broadly, posed by a depleting workforce and skills base. It presaged a series of related documents from MoD and other security institutions. A Key Suppliers Group was set up by BAE Systems to improve co-ordination among UK nuclear contractors. And this culminated in 2009, with the Government launching the Nuclear Skills Institute whose remit spans the linkages between strategically crucial skills across civilian and defence sectors.

It is interesting to consider all this activity linking decision making on nuclear power and military nuclear infrastructures. But all this leaves us with for sure, are questions. To ask these need not be seen as stoking a conspiracy theory. The issue is simply about degrees of alignment by other institutions, with pressures exerted by manifestly powerful interests in the national nuclear deterrent. Nor need this be surprising. What is remarkable is the virtually complete lack of discussion, anywhere in the media, public policy documents, or even wider critical debate. And what makes these issues especially tricky, are the serious sensitivities and obvious levels of secrecy.

So we are led to end this article in a rather unusual fashion. We wonder if there is anyone out there who can help us? We believe it is in both national and wider interests to understand these issues more deeply. Much is at stake. And a responsible approach to nuclear strategy – military as well as civilian – requires the best possible knowledge. So if anyone can appropriately offer relevant evidence or experience, we would be interested in giving this the requisite careful attention. Please get in touch.