Britain’s Civilian Nuclear Program Is Not a Stealth Military Program

Lack of Evidence of a Conspiracy is Not Evidence of a Deeper Conspiracy


Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, England

October 18, 2016 | Jessica Lovering

Last week, the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Peter Wynn Kirby, a social anthropologist at Oxford, alleging that the United Kingdom promoted the Hinkley Point C project as “a stealth initiative to bolster Britain’s nuclear deterrent.” The author’s argument is entirely dependent on a “painstaking study” authored by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex.

While the study offers up self-described circumstantial evidence for links between British civilian and military nuclear suppliers, their main argument is that there can be no other explanation for the United Kingdom’s support for nuclear power.

This seems, frankly, a little thin. Both Kirby’s Op-Ed and the SPRU paper ignore the complex energy and environmental challenges facing the United Kingdom that could warrant a renewed interest in domestic nuclear power: energy security, carbon emissions, reducing electricity and gas imports, domestic industrial jobs.

While many UK nuclear vendors are involved both in military and civilian projects, the government chose a reactor designed by German and French companies rather than investing in developing their own design with domestic suppliers. While the New York Times Op-Ed assumes the military-civilian cover-up is a fact, the actual SPRU report says this in the middle of its 95 pages:

The overall picture is a complete absence of any acknowledgement of formative links between commitments to military nuclear submarine capabilities and attachments to civil nuclear power.

The SPRU working paper makes several claims that the United Kingdom plans “unparallel” support for nuclear power and remains “internationally distinct” for its nuclear policies, and notes an “unprecedented turnaround” in policy from 2003 to 2006. But there’s more than one good reason for why the United Kingdom might have picked up interest in nuclear power at this time. The United States passed the Energy Act of 2005, which provided significant financial support for new nuclear builds and advanced nuclear R&D. Both France and Finland finalized plans for their own new EPR builds, which began construction in 2005 and 2007. Over this time period, global construction starts of nuclear power began to grow, with dozens of new builds in China and South Korea. The United Kingdom may have simply been trying to maintain relevance in a fast-paced global nuclear power industry that was leaving them behind.

Not to mention, in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol entered into force and the EU emissions trading scheme began. In 2003, nuclear made up 83% of the United Kingdom’s low-carbon electricity, and the average age of a reactor was 19 years, perhaps causing concern for how they would meet reductions in carbon emissions.

Maybe, just maybe, those caused a shift in UK energy policies. It’s at least worth looking into; however, the SPRU paper doesn’t investigate any alternative explanations.

Yet there is a stark dichotomy in how the New York Times Op-Ed was received by various audiences, highlighting whom this report was directed towards. People who work in the civilian nuclear industry laughed, noting that this conspiracy theory runs counter to conventional wisdom: often governments hide funding for civilian programs in military spending, whose budget is rarely questioned. On the other side, the buzz on Twitter ignored the circumstantial aspect of the SPRU working paper (which they mostly likely did not read) and accepted Wynn’s hypothesis as fact: the United Kingdom used the Hinkley EPR project to hide funding for Trident submarines. Many noted the irony of the United Kingdom accepting investment from Chinese firms to build the French EPR, as the new submarines will be defending UK sovereignty. And of course this is in stark contrast to the conclusions in the SPRU report, which concluded a soft connection at best:

Of course, this holds no necessary implications for any definite links (let alone directions) of causality. It is possible, for instance, that the extraordinary expense of both civil and military nuclear capabilities simply makes a reflection of national economic capacities.

The alternative explanation may seem unthinkable to anti-nuclear pundits, but requires a lesser leap of imagination: that the British government has a genuine concern for reducing carbon emissions, stabilizing electricity prices, and reducing gas imports. More importantly, the United Kingdom may see a benefit in maintaining leadership in civilian nuclear power, because there is a global nuclear renaissance, and they don’t want to be left behind.


Jessica Lovering

Jessica Lovering is Director of Energy at Breakthrough. She coauthored the report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap, as well as many analyses on nuclear energy policy. @J_Lovering



Jessica Lovering, "Radiation and Reason: An Interview with Dr. Wade Allison," August 11, 2016

Jessica Lovering and Amber Robson, "All Pain, No Gain: Closing Diablo Canyon Will Cause Costs and Emissions to Rise," June 30, 2016

Will Boisvert, "Not Dead Yet: Global Nuclear Industry Picked Up Steam in 2015," April 22, 2016

Jessica Lovering, "How Much Radiation Is Too Much? An Interview with Edward Calabrese," April 20, 2016



"Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Power"


"Moderate Environmentalists Go Nuclear"


"Top Climate Scientists Urge Support of Nuclear Power"


Jessica Lovering, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger, "Out of the Nuclear Closet," September 2012


Editorial Board, "Don't Give Up on Nuclear Energy Yet," September 5, 2013

Eduardo Porter, "Coming Full Circle in Energy to Nuclear," August 20, 2013

Bryan Walsh, "New Nuclear Reactor Designs Could Address Safety and Cost Concerns," August 5, 2013

Amy Harder, "Can the US Government Revive Nuclear Power?" November 23, 2014

Tim McDonnell, "Obama's Deal with China Is a Big Win for Solar, Nuclear, and Clean Coal," November 12, 2014

Ashutosh Jogalekar, "Making Nuclear Energy Cheap," June 20, 2014

Martin LaMonica, "U-Power's Truck-Size Nuclear Power Plant," May 15, 2014

Robert Bryce, "A Nuclear Option for Energy," May 9, 2014

Ben Geman, "Greens Still See Red On Nuclear," February 2, 2014

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Can Climate Skeptics Save the Planet?" September 27, 2013

Ashutosh Jogalekar, "Nuclear vs. Renewables: A Tale of Disparaties," August 22, 2013

Bob Dreyfuss, "The IPCC Report and Nuclear Energy," August 21, 2013

Eduardo Porter, "Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear," August 20, 2013

Mark Halper, "Newfangled reactors will slash costs of nuclear power," July 16, 2013

Eliza Strickland, "Can Nuclear Reactors Be Cheap?" July 12, 2013

Fred Pearce, "New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet's Last Best Hope," July 15, 2013

Bryan Walsh, "Nuclear Energy is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?" July 8, 2013

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Going Green? Then Go Nuclear," May 22, 2013

Joe Garofoli, "Some Environmentalists Back Nuclear Power," June 13, 2013

Robert Bryce, "Rise of the Nuclear Greens," March 7, 2013

Colbert Report, "Tonight's guest: Michael Shellenberger explores global energy consumption, nuclear power and lessons from Frankenstein," January 28, 2013

Tim Wu, "If You Care About the Environment You Should Support Nuclear Power," January 24, 2013