All at sea: making sense of the UK’s muddled nuclear policy

A new ‘The Conversation’ post by Phil Johnston and Andy Stirling

Philip Johnstone, University of Sussex and Andy Stirling, University of Sussex

The chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has recently been waving huge wads of cash at different (but similarly delinquent) parts of UK nuclear policy. In August, he sailed triumphantly up the Clyde to the Trident-hosting Faslane Naval base to announce £500m of investment. This was a move many considered to be jumping the gun, or even “arrogant” given that no final decision has been made on its renewal.

A few weeks later, on his tour of China, Osborne was announcing an astonishing £2 billion loan guarantee to city investors if the developers of the Hinkley C reactor go bust. And this is additional to a guaranteed strike price of £92.50 per megawatt hour for 35 years (roughly double the current price of electricity – and significantly more than the current strike price for several renewables). As Simon Jenkins writes in relation to the chancellor’s recent announcements: “You can accuse George Osborne of many things, but austerity isn’t one of them”.

No laughing matter

It has got to the point with Hinkley C where one must wonder how Osborne, the secretary of state for Energy and Climate Change, Amber Rudd and the chief executive of EDF, Vincent de Rivaz, manage to keep straight faces while repeating what a good deal the project will be for everybody. The French state-owned energy firm EDF is due to partner with the Chinese under the deal announced by Osborne in Beijing, and Rivaz’s boss, Jean-Bernard Levy, has admitted that the Chinese state is the only investor that can be persuaded that the project is viable.

Even this is only possible, with still-secret commitments that the Chinese can then build their own further nuclear power stations in the UK. Indeed, there is now virtually no commentator in the British media, or elsewhere, who seriously considers the Hinkley C project to be a sensible idea. As the most expensive nuclear power station ever built, left and right are united in recognising it as one of the worst infrastructure project decisions in British history. Experts formerly claiming nuclear to be a “necessity” now seem to have realised that other low-carbon pathways are not only possible, but manifestly more attractive.

Off the grid. Power games.
Nayu Kim, CC BY

British journalists who were noisily insisting people were wrong to protest against Hinkley C are now themselves equally vociferously arguing against the power station. As support for renewables are cut and commitments to Hinkley remain, international observers look on in wonder at UK energy policy – but for all the wrong reasons.

It seems a sorry end for the unusual partisan attachment that the UK government has shown for new nuclear since 2008. With all the efforts of orchestrated pro-nuclear advocacylambasting anyone daring to depart from complete ideological commitment to new nuclear – it might be expected that nuclear plans would be looking more secure. But the main aims now seem to be blame management and saving face.

Route map

Never plausible to anyone recalling past episodes of nuclear enthusiasm, the latest bout of zeal for a “nuclear renaissance” has now lost all credibility. With global investments in renewable electricity two years ago overtaking those in all fossil fuel generation put together, the direction of change is clear. Numerous international assessments show renewables are already price-competitive even with optimistic costings for new nuclear.

Panel beaters. Renewables are outpacing nuclear.

Despite better nuclear engineering and a worse renewable resource, developments in Germany reinforce the picture. Even in the UK, where official analysis tends to remain eccentrically romantic about nuclear, the picture has long been clear for anyone with an open mind. As early as 2003 the most detailed energy white paper for decades found nuclear power “unattractive” – before being overturned by a cursory revision that was itself rejected by judicial review for being too superficial.

Specialist analyses for the UK government – of kinds that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has resisted making public – repeatedly find many renewables to offer better value than new nuclear. This is borne out in the government’s own data for electricity contracts. And, for any project with such a long lifetime, perhaps even more damning is that renewable costs keep dropping, while nuclear costs keep rising.

So it is an understatement to say it is odd that DECC is cutting support for onshore wind, solar power and ending support for home energy efficiency – while unswervingly staying committed to extortionate new nuclear power. Former minister for energy, Ed Davey, puts it bluntly:


For Davey, the only explanation can be one of partisan commitment by Osborne – because “he just wanted a nuclear power plant”. It is sure that Osborne is no environmentalist. With so much nuclear work contracted abroad and UK employment allowed to haemorrhage in other sectors – for instance in steel and solar power – it doesn’t seem Osborne is motivated by jobs.

Attracting Chinese infrastructure investment may play a role, but the realities make it clear there are many more economically promising alternatives than nuclear. And encouraging Chinese involvement in a technology with such grave national security implications further compounds the oddity. George Osborne’s nuclear obsession really does require some kind of explanation.

‘Deep state’

As we have explored elsewhere, perhaps the best clue lies in Osborne’s trip up the Clyde to Faslane; maybe the real commitment here is to maintaining Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Amid the clamour of the recent China visit, it was also announced that a big slice of Hinkley contracts would go to Rolls Royce – the makers of Britain’s nuclear submarine reactors.

HMS Vigilant returns to port.
Defence Images, CC BY-NC

The calculation seems to be, that trickle-down from foreign power reactor manufacturers may be just enough to sustain a national industrial capability sufficient to continue the nuclear-armed status that current debates remind is so emotively cherished both by Tories and at the top of Labour. There are tantalising signs that this lay behind the strange reversal in nuclear white papers mentioned above. If this is not at the bottom of Osborne’s mind, it is difficult to know what is.

If so, the implications for the health of UK politics are extremely serious. The Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party is raising these issues anew. All sides are limbering up for the coming argument over Trident. But if the above analysis is true, then massive financial pre-commitments are being made (and some already firmly in place) on an unprecedented scale, that risk effectively locking in a decision before the process of making it has ostensibly begun.

With mainstream press reports of senior British Army figures mooting mutiny under a Corbyn government, this carries more than a whiff of something akin to an unaccountable British “deep state”. For anyone who cares about democracy – whatever their views on nuclear power or nuclear weapons – now is the moment to ask some searching questions about what nuclear policy is doing to British politics. And there seems no-one better to ask than Osborne.

The Conversation

Philip Johnstone, Research Fellow, SPRU, University of Sussex and Andy Stirling, Professor of Science & Technology Policy, SPRU and co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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3 comments on “All at sea: making sense of the UK’s muddled nuclear policy
  1. The world is looking at too small a canvas. Energy is a world problem and Britain has to somehow fit within it.
    Britain’s entire energy policy (not just nuclear) is completely muddled as is the energy policy of most of Europe. Every form of energy we use is either subsidized , specially taxed or incenivised in other ways so that no proper or discernible energy market can realistically exist and therefore no potential investors will invest.
    Because unabated (free burn) fossil fuel has been the norm energy source to date and remains the cheapest and most flexible, it has been used as the “standard of comparison” for these many schemes but the strategic aim of all energy policy has been and remains, to displace fossil fuel to prevent untrammelled global warming. Thus we have created a mish-mash of subsidies, taxes and other market corrupting policies whose success is to be measured against a “standard” that will no longer exist if energy markets can be persuaded to invest and fossil fuel disappears.
    There is a much better way to solve this problem, rationally. Happy to explain.

  2. CaptD says:

    I do not live in the UK but I’m very interested in the cost of Nuclear Generation, here is the best article I’ve seen about Hinkley C:

    Hinkley C’s claimed benefits evaporate under scrutiny

    To explain their desperation to commit an estimated £76 billion of public money to the Hinkley C nuclear project, writes Paul Dorfman, the Treasury and its Chancellor, George Osborne, claim there are other benefits that justify this vast expenditure. So what exactly are they? And do the claims survive critical examination?

    by: Dr Paul Dorfman is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Energy Institute, University College London (UCL); Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) Nuclear Policy Research Fellow; Founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group (NCG)

    Security of supply
    Osborne says that we need a secure supply of nuclear baseload electricity. But Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid, the company that operates the power transmission networks in the UK and in the northeastern US, says the idea of large nuclear power stations to be used for baseload power is outdated:
    “The world is clearly moving towards much more distributed electricity production and towards microgrids. The pace of that development is uncertain. That depends on political decisions, regulatory incentives, consumer preferences, technological developments. But the direction is” [2]


    Ramping climate change means we need to de-carbonise quickly. Osborne has reframed nuclear as a response to climate change. But Hinkley, together with its radioactive waste stores, including spent fuel, will be sited on the coast, increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise, flooding and storm surge from climate change.
    Sorry to say that, as the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers state: “Nuclear sites based on the coastline may need considerable investment to protect them against rising sea levels, or even abandonment or relocation in the long term.” [5]
    Osborne maintains that nuclear is low-carbon. Yet serious analysis shows that, factoring in the full nuclear life-cycle from uranium mining, through transport, fuel enrichment, plant construction and operation, decommissioning and waste management, nuclear CO2 emissions have a mean value of 66g CO2e/kWh.
    That’s significantly higher than for wind (2,8-7,4 g/kWhel), hydropower (17-22 g/kWhel), photovoltaic (19-59 g/kWhel), and energy efficiency measures (which are at least ten times more cost effective) [6].


    Affordability and price stability
    Osborne says Hinkley is good value. But it’s difficult to comprehend how Hinkley might contribute to affordability, price stability and least-cost for the UK energy consumer.
    In fact, Hinkley would be the most expensive piece of nuclear kit ever built [7], and the agreed price for its electricity must inevitably lead to significantly higher prices for the UK energy consumer [8].
    However, it does remain true that the deal would prove very profitable to French and Chinese nuclear corporations during the lengthy 35-year Contract period, including the very generous proposals for an inflation-indexed deal.
    Essentially, all this means that the Government is willing to add £19 billion to the deficit, and will impose £2 billion/year on the energy bills of hardworking families in order to support Chinese and French state owned industries provided wholesale electricity prices do not fall, in which case the imposition on bills will be even greater.


  3. CaptD says:

    One other comment: If the UK ratepayers were smart, they would immediately demand that all talks regarding Hinkley C be halted until a fair and balance study could be done to compare what Germany is doing (allowing non Utility energy generators to get paid for the energy they generate from their own wind and PV and thereby become part of the Energy generation for the Country) to what the UK Utilities want to keep doing (which is be the only seller of Energy in the UK).

    All customers deserve Energy Equality with the Utilities that serve them. Big Utilities should not be able to accept residential/small business/non-Utility Solar energy without paying the same amount they pay themselves for the Solar Energy they produce at the time that energy is put into the Grid, anything less is ripping off the non-Utility customers.

    Since many major Corporations and very soon even the Military are installing their own Energy generation, it is just a matter of time before home owners and business owners also do the same thing, especially since they can also use the electricity to recharge their vehicles, thus eliminating yet another monthly bill, while writing off the entire cost, just like Utilities have been doing forever.

    BTW: Some of the above were was posted here:

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