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.