A report in the BBC today claims that the reason the UK government has ploughed on with the controversial Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is that it is needed to ensure the the UK has access to small nuclear reactors for our submarine fleet. More specifically, it cites a University of Sussex claim that the Government is “willing to burden householders with the expense of nuclear energy is because it underpins the supply chain and skills base for firms such as Rolls Royce and Babcock that work on nuclear submarines.”
To some extent it should not matter where the money comes from as the UK Government does not often “silo” or ring-fence revenue. For example, not all the funds from the “tax-disc” for your car go to maintaining roads as one might think would be reasonable. However, in this day of the all-informed net, but where a little knowledge is still a dangerous thing, it makes for good journalistic headlines to turn this issue into an injustice being perpetrated upon unwitting electricity customers, many of whom will of course be ardent anti-Trident and/or nuclear-disarmament advocates.
The BBC article emphasises this last point by saying that the Government is facing a difficult choice, for either it continues to maintain that there is no linkage between civilian and defence nuclear research and industrial capability in this country, or “it accepts that decisions on nuclear power are influenced with half an eye on manufacturing jobs and nuclear deterrent, (in which case….) it will face resistance from consumer groups unwilling to cross-subsidise submarines.”
Members of Sussex University’s staff are no strangers to this topic. They have been writing and talking about it for some time now and clearly think that they are onto something. One of their main points is that government support for many forms of alternative energy have fallen away over recent years in marked contrast with that for nuclear energy; they claim that R&D for nuclear receives 12 times as much funding as renewables, for example.
In another article published in 2018, Andy Stirling, a professor, and Phil Johnstone, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, refer to a 2008 National Audit Office statement concerning the funding of the UK’s military nuclear deterrent: “One assumption of the future deterrent programme is that the United Kingdom submarine industry will be sustainable and that the costs of supporting it will not fall directly on the future deterrent programme.” The implications are irrefutable, according to Stirling and Johnstone: a conspiracy of silence has been set in place to avoid having to admit that the electricity consumer is funding our nuclear deterrent programme.
The two academics are concerned about the way in which the “burgeoning hype around the UK’s development of Small Modular Reactors (SMR)” is being driven by defence needs. However, it is clear that SMRs have a number of potential long term benefits to the civil power industry.
They can be built in factories and shipped almost complete to a site, where installation can be completed in a much shorter time than a large reactor being assembled on-site, and to a much more predictable timeline. Given the scope for “volume” production runs of identical reactors, initial purchase costs as well as through-life support will be far less. Additionally, it is far more likely that product improvements will be made available for retrofit, helping to maintain or even improve safety as time goes on. .
SMRs require much smaller protective structures than a single large reactor, reducing the extent of the protection needed against aircraft crashes amongst other things. The risks associated with the failure of a single reactor is also significantly reduced, and they can be clustered in dispersed groups to provide the power needed.
If you have detected a slight disconnect between the Academics’ arguments about favouring smaller reactors on the one hand, and the apparent enthusiasm for the larger unit at Hinkley, you are not alone. As time goes by, cries of this or that conspiracy change as the mood-music shifts.
In fact, neither the Hinkley reactor or the first SMRs are likely to be on stream in the West for at least five to ten years. It is believed that the Russians are well advanced in terms of SMR technology, but the UK and US are racing to catch up. It is perhaps this that has led to the UK’s investment in nuclear technology rather than a simple desire to make the electricity consumer pay for our submarine force’s power plants.
That said, there is increasing public discussion about the links between the UK’s civil and military reactor requirements – something that the UK has been doing for at least ten years now. For their part, the US has acknowledged for some time that their navy relies upon a joint strategic approach between civil and military research in this area. So we should not be at all coy about doing so in the UK.
Text in italics from the BBC and other articles.