Bombs Ahoy! Why the UK is desperate for nuclear power

The Vale of Mordor - or is the Sellafield 'atom factory' in Cumbria, UK? Photo: tim_d via Flickr.
The Vale of Mordor - or is the Sellafield 'atom factory' in Cumbria, UK? Photo: tim_d via Flickr.

The Vale of Mordor. Or is it the Sellafield 'atom factory' in Cumbria, UK, where spent nuclear fuel is re-processed into plutonium? Photo: tim_d via Flickr.

On the face of it, the UK government's obsession with nuclear power defies reason. It's very expensive, inflexible, creates 'existential' threats and imposes enormous 'long tail' liabilities tens of thousands of years into the future. But there is a simple explanation: it's all to maintain the UK's status as a nuclear WMD state.
The UK's civil nuclear programme is almost entirely motivated by the UK's wish to maintain its status as a nuclear WMD state.

The UK's proposed support package for the Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset is gigantic. Estimates of its cost range up to £100 billion or so.

Of course it's hard to put a precise figure on it, as the subsidies take so many forms, and many of the commitments represent a guarantee against unknown and unquantifiable eventualities. But to summarise they include:

  • a generous guaranteed purchase price for its electricity, at £92.50 per megawatt-hour - about double the current going rate - also inflation adjusted from now, and lasting for 35 years after it begins to produce power;
  • £10 billion of Treasury guarantees on its construction cost;
  • a guaranteed maximum exposure to the operator, EDF, on its waste management and decomissioning costs;
  • the limitation of EDF's liabilities in the event of any major nuclear accident at €700 million, when nuclear accidents can impose costs in the $100s of billions;
  • a variety of pump priming exercises to lubricate the nuclear supply chain, and direct support to Sheffield Forgemasters, a manufacturer of nuclear reactor vessels;
  • a panoply of expenditures for nuclear R&D by way of research councils.

And all this just for a single 2.4GW power station that would generate just 20TWh of our 350TWh per year electricity usage.

On the face of it, it's madness!

The government is busy hacking back at support for renewables such as onshore wind and solar, by a variety of means (from discrimination via the planning system to restrictive spending caps) - just as these technologies approach cost parity with fossil fuel generation.

The government claims, in its submissions to the EU, that the aims of its nuclear power subsidies are to decarbonise the UK's electricity, while diversity and security of supply.

But just to look at decarbonisation, the electricity price support alone offered to Hinkley C is worth some €250 per tonne of CO2 - while the price of carbon under the EU's Emissions Trading System is around €5.

What this tells us us that there are existing decarbonisation opportunities there for the taking at €5 per tonne of CO2 - so exactly why would anyone want to invest £100 billion of our money in decarbonising at a price 50 times higher?

The government's insistence of pushing forward with nuclear power looks insane. But there is another explanation: that they actually have a rational motive - just one they're keeping quiet about.

What else could it be?

My own considered view is that the UK's civil nuclear programme is almost entirely motivated by the UK's wish to maintain its status as a nuclear WMD state.

The UK's civil nuclear programme is almost entirely motivated by the UK's wish to maintain its status as a nuclear WMD state.

It is a simple fact that all the 'permanent five' members of the Un Security Council are nuclear WMD states: the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK. This status is not one that the UK is about to give up lightly.

But why is a civil nuclear programme so important to having a nuclear WMD programme? Here are some reasons:

  • to maintain nuclear WMD we need a substantial pool of nuclear physicists, engineers, University departments, professors, graduates, technicians, etc;
  • it would be very expensive to sustain this whole nuclear establishment purely for the sake of a WMD programme - far better to spread out the costs with a civil nuclear programme which ends up bearing most of the costs;
  • nuclear science and engineering would offer unattractive and insecure career prospects if tied exclusively to employment on nuclear WMD;
  • it's important to be able to spread out the costs of the entire nuclear fuel cycle from uranium sourcing and enrichment through to disposal of wastes so that a nuclear WMD programme can piggy-back at low cost on a much larger civil nuclear programme.

The Burning Answer

Reading Keith Barnham's excellent 'The Burning Answer' I was pleased to find that he reached precisely the same view (see page 92). First, he documents how civil nuclear reactors were deliberately used to provide plutonium for military use right from the outset of nuclear power in the UK.

But now it's no longer plutonium we need - we have more than enough of that, with our 100 tonne plutonium stockpile. It is, rather, a supply of tritium that's needed. Produced as a by-product of operating nuclear power plants, it's essential to maintain supplies as it decays away at about 5% per year.

Tritium is used as a secondary source of neutrons to ignite nuclear fission devices, so boosting the power of a conventional fission bomb by magnifying the early neutron flux and achieving a greater burnup of the uranium or plutonium before the whole assembly is blasted to smithereens.

Additionally tritium is a key ingredient of H-bombs which release colossal volumes of energy by the nuclear fusion of this unstable isotope of hydrogen.

The UK's military also needs high-enriched uranium as fuel for both Trident and hunter-killer nuclear submarines. The former are the deployment platform for the UK's nuclear missiles.

Currently, writes Barnham, the UK gets its high enriched uranium from the USA. But this may not always be the case - so it's important for us to have our own capability to enrich uranium for civil reactor fuel, and then we can use the same equipment and / or engineering expertise to produce high-enriched uranium for nuclear submarines.

Nuclear power and nuclear WMD - two sides of one coin

So what are the implications for campaigners opposting Hinkley C and other new nuclear power plants? First it means that there is little point in trying to change the minds of key decision makers in the UK government and opposition parties about nuclear power.

They already know as well as you do that it's a disastrous option for power generation. However they will continue to insist how utterly necessary it is for the UK to have nuclear power at more or less any cost, trotting out one absurd and unconvincing reason after another as they have been doing for years.

The same goes, incidentally, for nuclear power in the USA, China, Russia, France and other WMD countries. In all of them civil nuclear power provides the 'nuclear sea' in which the 'WMD fish' may swim.

However it is worth exposing politicians' lies for what they are - and making it absolutely clear, on every possible occasion, that the only reason they really want nuclear power is to maintain the UK's status as a nuclear WMD state.

After all, the fact they are so assiduous in concealing this truth shows it's one that's seriously damaging to the case they're making.

While you're about it, be sure to explain the nature of the relationship and how the government's aim is a sneaky and dishonest one - to force the UK's energy users to pay for the country's WMD programme in our power bills.

Re-energising campaigns

It also means that the two main anti-nuclear campaigning factions - anti-nuclear power and anti-nuclear WMD - are really a single movement with a common aim. Without either one, the other will become significantly weaker, unviable, and ultimately die.

And this knowledge arms us with an important new argument against the so called 'nuclear greens' such as George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, Bryony Worthington and Stephen Tindale. They may sincerely believe that nuclear power is the answer to climate change - however hard it is to understand quite how they reached that counter-factual conclusion.

But point out to them that by supporting nuclear power they are actually backing nuclear weapons - and in the process a discredited, outdated, genocidal world order based on the capacity of nuclear WMD states to destroy the world - and their proposition rapidly gets a whole lot less sustainable.

The other thing we must do is to give our relentless support to renewable energy, which has emerged as nuclear power's greatest and deadliest enemy as it progressively undermines its madhouse economics.

Every solar panel or wind turbine is a direct attack on nuclear power - and on the nuclear weapons it exists to support.


Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

Keith Barnham is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Imperial College London, and author of The Burning Answer: a User's Guide to the Solar Revolution, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 01373-463-822.

More from this author