The UK’s so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’ is once again in crisis. In November, it was announced that Toshiba were pulling out of investing in the new Moorside nuclear power station after years of expensive planning, for which British citizens will be paying for years to come. Meanwhile in Scotland (nuclear power is not being pursued and emissions are falling faster than elsewhere in the UK), 98 percent of final electricity demand was met by wind power alone in October. Just as the ‘atomic dream’ is rendered ever more clearly obsolete by renewables, UK Government nuclear enthusiasm intensifies.

The UK has one of the most ambitious nuclear new build agendas in the world. The program was justified on the basis that it would produce power "significantly before 2025." It was claimed "keeping the lights on" with nuclear, would be cheaper than renewables and require no subsidy. The first new nuclear station, Hinkley C, would be operating by Christmas 2017.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Construction work including one of two 'nuclear islands' is seen at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station near Cannington in southwest England, in January 2018.

In reality, no new nuclear has been built or will be operating until after 2025 if at all. No contribution has therefore been made to climate change mitigation or energy security. Meanwhile, rapid acceleration of renewables is contributing significantly to these aims. Costs of new nuclear has tripled, while the government’s own figures show solar and on- and offshore wind to be cheaper than new nuclear.

This is against the backdrop of rapid ongoing worldwide transformations in electricity generation, where worldwide investments in non-hydro renewables outpace those in fossil fuels and nuclear combined. At the same time, the global nuclear industry is in decline. Yet despite these emerging realties, the UK government remains committed to a deal that has locked British consumers into paying a massive subsidy of tens of billions of pounds to the nuclear industry for the Hinkley C power station.

The body in charge of scrutinizing public expenditure, the National Audit Office (NAO) has described this arrangement as a "high cost and risky deal." Additional huge scale direct state investment is proposed to save other nuclear projects that are increasingly looking shaky.

Remarkably, this enthusiasm for nuclear is coming at the expense of support for renewables. Despite the accelerating growth and rapidly falling costs of renewables, government support seems inexplicably to be diminishing. Support for solar and energy efficiency has been cut and the cheapest source of low carbon electricity, onshore wind power, is effectively halted. Investment in UK renewables has reduced by half since these policy changes, putting energy security and climate ambitions seriously at risk – a situation many international observers find "puzzling."

These increasingly odd nuclear attachments in UK energy policy are increasingly questioned, even by formerly supportive voices. The Financial Times now suggests the UK should reconsider the nuclear option. The head of the UK’s Infrastructure Commission suggests perceived "needs" for nuclear are no longer justified. The supposed need for ‘baseload’ power so often emphasized by nuclear proponents has been described as "outdated" by the National Grid. That renewables are outperforming nuclear is no longer in doubt. The key remaining question is why the UK energy policy is so manifestly irrational?

A clue to the answer lies in the National Audit Office 2017 report on new nuclear power. They identify that justification for the UK’s new nuclear program is not based on the stated "energy trilemma" (affordability, carbon and security), but rather on "unquantified" reasons that remain unstated. It seems that these private "strategic" rationales for nuclear lie in an ostensibly different area of public policy. And it is here that recent research shines a light: it seems the UK’s infatuation with nuclear power is at least partly a military romance.

In particular, the costs of maintaining capabilities and skills needed to construct and operate nuclear submarines, would become insupportable without a large civil nuclear program. The UK’s civil nuclear program is evidently largely driven by an elite desire to sustain the country's "global standing," oddly thought to come with nuclear weapons.

These particular military drivers of UK nuclear attachments were first aired by our own research in 2015. Dismissed at the time by prominent nuclear advocates as a ‘conspiracy theory’, they were later vindicated in evidence to the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee by the senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defense, who confirmed in 2017 the strong links between civil nuclear and submarine industries. Around the same time, several high level reports in the USA made the case that even U.S. nuclear defense capabilities would struggle if civil nuclear was allowed to go obsolete.

As nuclear declines worldwide, it is striking how many of the few countries who continue to expend costly support, are either existing or aspiring nuclear weapons states. Given the rapid construction and falling costs of renewables worldwide, most countries are seeing the nuclear option as obsolete.

What the UK case shows, then, is a broader global challenge in the democratic implications of commitments to nuclear energy. Even nuclear advocates concede that efforts to revive nuclear in the UK took place behind "behind-closed-doors.’ What are clearly very strong military motivations, remain.

Where efforts are made to raise these issues in wider media debates, they flounder. As a result, the unfolding situation in the UK is not only underscoring the falsity of repeated earlier predictions and promises by nuclear advocates. It is also raising important questions about the transparency and accountability of UK policy making in this area. The increasingly desperate efforts to deny the growing obsolescence of nuclear power, are presenting a growing threat to democracy itself.

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Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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