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The Trident missile bearing nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard 'vents off' as she leaves HMNB Clyde in Scotland. Photo: Defence Images via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
The Trident missile bearing nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard 'vents off' as she leaves HMNB Clyde in Scotland. Photo: Defence Images via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
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Trident, nuclear submarines and the UK's nuclear power imperative

Andy Stirling & Phil Johnstone

15th January 2016

The UK's nuclear power programme is driven by military demands, write Andy Stirling & Phil Johnstone - but not in the way you might think. The most essential need is not for plutonium or tritium, but for a nuclear industrial sector to design, build and maintain the reactors that power nuclear submarines. Without them, the Trident missile system would have no military credibility.

Without nuclear propulsion, submarines would not perform in such a way as to make nuclear delivery systems militarily credible - and a very particular elite version of UK national identity would not be sustainable on the world stage.

2016 is set be a decisive year for two highly controversial areas of UK policy making.

With potentially insurmountable problems surrounding the development of new nuclear power in the UK, British energy policy stands at a turning point.

At the same time, Parliament will vote later this year on the 'main gate' decision for the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

This also takes place under unprecedented circumstances, with the Labour leadership strongly opposed, and 57 of the 59 Scottish MPs - where Trident is based - also rejecting its renewal.

In Whitehall, however, commitments remain steadfast both to new nuclear power and to the renewal of Trident. As these issues come to a head, a question has emerged from recent research at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) as to whether these two ostensibly separate issues may be linked in more ways than meets the eye.

Are the unswerving commitments to new nuclear power and Trident renewal mutually reinforcing?

Something strange about the British insistence on nuclear power at any cost

Some of the issues around these queries were discussed in three blog posts last year (see 'Shining a light', 'all at sea', 'why Germany'?). This research helps build understanding of why successive UK governments should have remained so distinctively committed to the development of nuclear power.

Comparing the UK and Germany in relation to nine carefully selected criteria, our research highlighted how odd it is that it should be Britain that is renewing its commitments to new nuclear whilst Germany abandons its own.

Both in terms of generating capabilities and engineering supply capacities, the UK has had a much weaker civil nuclear power industry. And unlike Germany, the UK enjoys the best renewable resources in Europe.

In addition to the complexities and delays in addressing climate change imperatives, UK Government data confirms that electricity from Hinkley Point C, with a 'strike price' of £92.50/ KWh is far more expensive than even many currently-existing renewables.

Yet UK energy policy has displayed a sustained preference for nuclear power, even though this is now revealed to require reliance on foreign involvement - including a need for controversial strategic infrastructure reliance on France and China.

It's the military, stupid!

In the absence of other satisfactory explanations for this curious pattern of developments, we present a very particular new hypothesis. This is, that it is strong UK government commitments to maintaining specific military nuclear capabilities, that are interacting with many other complex aspects to sway decisions so strongly in favour of nuclear power.

Of course, the idea of connections between civil and military nuclear technologies is not new. In the UK as elsewhere, many links have been documented in past flows of fissile isotopes and other key nuclear materials. But much of the historical importance of these material flow connections are now widely recognised to have been eclipsed by developments like the UK's vast accumulation of military plutonium stockpiles.

It is true that there are still important questions to be asked regarding supplies of other important materials for the functioning of nuclear weapons, particularly in relation to tritium as recently discussed in The Ecologist. But this does not seem to implicate the UK civil nuclear industry, so does not itself appear to link civil and military nuclear policy.

What we believe is distinctive and novel about our hypothesis, is that the dependencies we envisage between key current UK civil and military commitments play out at the level of innovation and industrial systems.

And above all, it's the nuclear submarines

Specifically, we hypothesise that it is serious concerns over the maintenance of UK capacity for manufacturing nuclear reactors for submarine propulsion - well documented in specialist military literatures - that are having the effect of reinforcing commitments to nuclear reactors for civilian power production.

Despite international legal undertakings and massive shifts in the global security landscape, UK adherence to nuclear weapons remains remarkably intense at the highest levels of Government, deep in Whitehall and throughout much wider political culture.

Yet without nuclear propulsion, it is widely argued that submarines would not perform in such a way as to make nuclear delivery systems militarily credible. So, without nuclear powered submarines, a very particular elite version of UK national identity would arguably not be sustainable on the world stage.

The central point that arises from this, is that there is seen to exist in influential quarters, a very powerful imperative for the UK to maintain the ability to build nuclear-powered submarines. But with each vessel being one of the most complex technological artefacts ever produced, this is not easy.

And without the requisite highly specialized capabilities, it is quite simply impossible. The scale of the associated industrial infrastructure makes this arguably even more intractable than producing - and certainly than maintaining - the nuclear weapons themselves.

Thus the need for a nuclear industrial sector

So what this means, is that the UK must under this view maintain a significant domestic role in dedicated supply chains and industrial infrastructures around civil nuclear power.

Viewed this way, the UK needs to maintain within its own borders, the requisite specialist production facilities, supply capacities, design capabilities, training infrastructure, and regulatory and consulting organisations and expertise.

This in turn requires the sustaining of a wider industrial sector at a sufficient scale. It is not necessary for this, that the UK lead on supplying entire civilian power stations. All that is needed, is simply that sufficient spill-over and trickle-down be redirectable to sustaining the basis for the producing nuclear submarines.

Without 'masking' this military dependence in the enormity of a civilian nuclear supply chain, UK leaders who are so disposed, might fear that what they seem to cherish as crucial national military capabilities, might end up being lost.

In investigating this, a key part of our analysis centers around a unique period in UK energy policy: when UK decision-making on energy fleetingly escaped its normal institutional straightjacket during the 2002 Energy Review and subsequent 2003 White Paper. This unusual institutional innovation led to a brief switch of government support away from civil nuclear power and towards renewable energy.

Despite the substantive conclusions drawn from this government energy review and the dire economic circumstances of UK nuclear at the time, UK energy policy had within a few years undergone a remarkable volte face. In a further Energy Review, hastily organised in 2006 after an unprecedentedly short interval and with no relevant developments in the wider strategic scene that might explain it, the UK declared a renewed commitment to new nuclear power.

It is in exactly this period, 2003-2006, that our research documents a remarkable pattern of intensified policy activity around submarine nuclear capabilities - including white papers, parliamentary select committee reviews, major studies for the Ministry of Defence and prominent think tanks, a major campaign by unions and the development of entire new organisations and institutions linking civil nuclear infrastructures and the capabilities to build nuclear powered submarines.

It is this conjunction of events that circumstantially supports our hypothesis of a link between energy policy and military nuclear commitments.

The harder you look, the more sense it makes

Over the past few months we have received much support for this new hypothesis - especially among researchers and journalists who have been following UK nuclear policy in the greatest detail. But we have encountered considerable difficulty in gaining interest from otherwise prominent critically-minded newspapers and journals.

Several editors have dismissed any need for attention, simply on grounds that they "do not understand" the idea. This seems odd. There may be justification for not covering this idea on grounds that it is wrong ... or boring. There are no obligations to be interested. But readers can judge for themselves whether the issues involved really are "too complicated" for leading journalists to understand.

More importantly, two other key concerns have also been repeatedly raised about this hypothesis. These have emerged in private conversations, 'below the line' in the blogs themselves, and in responses from leading academic commentators in the energy policy field.

One concern relates to the crucial current Chinese and French involvement in UK civil nuclear power. Here, foreign dependency (especially from a nation that many in the West are deeply suspicious of) has been treated as if refuting our hypothesis concerning any role for strategic security imperatives.

The question posed by such criticism, is why it should be that security priorities related to (the maintenance of nuclear-propelled submarines), would lead to such a counterproductive end, as dependence on a potential adversary?

But the above research actually deals quite directly with this point. In order to resolve the capability problem for nuclear submarine reactors, it is not necessary for UK firms to become first tier civil nuclear suppliers. Key roles in civil supply and value chains are sufficient.

Here, a potentially significant development after our initial article, is that a £100 million deal was confirmed with submarine reactor manufacturers Rolls Royce for heat exchangers and for the design and procurement of systems for the treatment and disposal of reactor coolant for Hinkley C.

This occurred at a point immediately before finalisation of crucial Chinese negotiations, when it was still possible to defend a juicy slice of the pie for this crucial part of the submarine manufacturing sector.

This cannot be dismissed as mere 'conspiracy theory'

With regard to the possible strategic concerns over dependence on the Chinese, it has to be recalled that the UK is caught between a rock and a hard place on this. The lack of any other credible current backers for UK civil nuclear investments, means that the choice may look like one between losing a capability altogether, or maintaining it with careful safeguards.

After all, the nature of this business means that it might still be hoped that UK submarine production capabilities might benefit indirectly from Chinese investment in indigenous UK skills, training and basic engineering supply, without any direct links of a kind that might compromise the particular - and closely guarded - submarine design details.

The strategic vulnerability of critical UK civilian energy infrastructure is of course another issue. But it does not seem unreasonable under a narrow nuclear-focused notion of security, that a kind of trade-off might be envisaged between what could be seen as an acceptable strategic concession on civil infrastructure, in order to retain a perceived crucial military capability.

Another frequently encountered criticism of our hypothesis is that it amounts to a 'conspiracy theory'. Of course it is very clear that were our hypothesis true, it would entail a significant level of secrecy in UK nuclear policy.

We refer to this implication, by making a connection with an established academic literature concerning the phenomenon of a 'deep state'. This involves the identification within and beneath the visible processes of government, of a deeper set of interests and relations that intervene in order to help determine particular outcomes on crucial issues.

The dynamics of a deep state are, of course, by nature secretive. But we are explicit in repeatedly noting in our analysis that our hypothesizing of this possibility, should not be seen to imply a conspiracy theory in any simplistic sense. It is not necessary to envisage events being driven by deliberate plotting in smoke-filled rooms.

Like iron filings in a magnetic field, what would be involved instead, would simply be the aligning of different flows of power, in order to respect the underlying gradients in deeply structured interests. In other words, all that is needed in order to at least consider our hypothesis, is a realistic and open - rather than romantic and closed - view of the routine dynamics of power. To anyone familiar with the workings of Whitehall, this view does not seem so eccentric!

UK (non-)compliance with Non Proliferation Treaty

To add to this, there are some further very particular reasons why the UK Government might be circumspect about any links of this kind between civil and military nuclear activities. For instance, this is a very sensitive point under the terms of the international Nuclear Non Proliferation regime.

With plans for Trident renewal already putting the UK in a very tricky international legal position under this treaty, it would be entirely understandable that strong efforts might be made not to broadcast such policy links if they did exist.

So, it is in this light neither fair nor (more importantly) reasonable, to dismiss the hypothesizing of any kind of concealed political pressure - as a number of commentators have done - as a 'conspiracy theory'. Indeed, such a reaction might in itself help explain why what should be rather obvious hypothesis, has not been raised before.

In the end, any hypothesizing over elite policy processes entails the threat of conspiracy theory objections. It is hardly a surprise, after all, if military links bring some correspondingly intensified level of secrecy. The only sure way to avoid risk of conspiracy theory accusations, is to avoid critically researching such issues at all.

This said, to put conspiracy theory accusations in this light, certainly does not prove anything. But it does urge caution at simply rejecting the hypothesized dynamics simply because no part of the UK Government or associated institutions are readily acknowledging them.

So, this is where things stand in this strand of research at the moment. We are busy researching a number of further interesting threads in the more detailed background. And we would be very interested in any further substantive evidence - or counter-evidence - that might help cast light on the doubtless very complex realities behind this picture.

Now is the time for an open and honest debate

In the meantime, the Hinkley C saga continues and the debate around Trident comes ponderously to a head. With all this unfolding, the implications of our own tiny strand of work for this potentially momentous double turning point in UK politics, remains far from clear.

With investigations continuing, we are at the moment very far from 'proving' this hypothetical link between nuclear submarine interests and commitments to civil nuclear power. In any it is rare indeed, that social science is ever in a positon to 'prove' anything. And even if our suspicions of links were confirmed, a reaction by proponents of nuclear weapons, might be that the additional burdens in electricity supply are well worth the cost!

The significance of this work lies rather in the fact that these issues have been so entirely neglected over the years. And animated 'conspiracy theory' accusations serve only to threaten further suppression of attention. Whichever side one might be on, the implications extend far beyond research.

The inexplicable and under-justified persistence of such deep nuclear commitments in the UK raises deep questions about the health of British government policy debates on these issues - and so to this extent, British democracy as a whole. Now is the time for more open, robust and substantive discussion.

 


 

Andy Stirling is Professor of Science & Technology Policy, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre, University of Sussex.

Phil Johnstone is a Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), working on the ESRC funded Discontinuity in Technological Systems (DiscGo) project led by Professor Andy Stirling.

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