Nuclear fuel assemblies under inspection

A comedy of errors

Vastly expensive, unsafe and inextricably linked to weapons of mass destruction - Eddie Ford rejects the madness of nuclear power

Last year the government rebranded British Nuclear Fuels Ltd as Great British Nuclear - a typically Johnsonian name. Originally created in 1971 to manufacture nuclear fuel, run reactors, generate and sell electricity, reprocess spent fuel and so on, the renaming was meant to signal the government’s determination to accelerate the development of new nuclear projects and supposedly meet its net-zero targets. Of course, the idea that nuclear power is in any way ‘green’ is totally mad, but that has not stopped the government and its agents embracing the idea.

So earlier this month, regardless of faltering nuclear output and near endless project delays - leading inevitably to ever more spiralling costs - ministers set out hubristic plans for what they call the “biggest nuclear power expansion in 70 years”. To this end, they published on January 12 a roadmap that “recommits” the government to building a “fleet” of nuclear reactors capable of producing 24GW by 2050 - enough to meet a quarter of the national electricity demand. Approval will be given, we are told, for one or two new reactors every five years from 2030 to 2044. According to Boris Johnson back in 2022, building a new reactor every year would “wean” Britain off fossil fuel - but you cannot help but be reminded of his pledge to build 40 “new” hospitals by 2030, which was always an obvious nonsense. However, junking what his predecessor had said, Rishi Sunak announced last year that he wants to wean us back onto fossil fuels with his “maxing out” policy of granting 100-plus new gas and oil drilling licences. Needless to say, the government’s entire approach to energy makes no sense whatsoever.

Promised land

We have a situation where Britain’s nuclear power output fell to its lowest level in more than 40 years in 2023, after three reactors closed in the previous two years and statutory maintenance forced temporary shutdowns at four reactors. EDF Energy - the French state-owned developer of Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C - said its nuclear output in the UK had fallen from a high point of 65 terawatt hours in 2016 from eight nuclear plants, to less than 40TWh in 2023. It even said this month that it would delay the shutdown of four of its UK nuclear reactors for at least two years to help plug the “looming gap” in the UK’s nuclear supplies towards the end of the decade.

But the promised land seems to keep getting further away, with EDF announcing this week that Hinkley Point C could be delayed by a further four years, and cost £2.3 billion more - making the whole project a comedy of errors, with the company blaming inflation, Covid and Brexit for the recalculation. Originally, in a display of boosterism that must have made Johnson proud, then EDF chief executive, Vincent de Rivaz, declared in 2007 that by Christmas 2017 people would be eating turkeys cooked using electricity generated from Hinkley! When the project was finally given the green light in 2016, its cost was estimated at £18 billion and was due to be completed by June 2027, with a 15-month ‘buffer’ period which was likely to be used - putting its completion at September 2028, with a further year for the second unit, its costs being estimated then as £25-26 billion. Inevitably, this was later revised up to £32.7 billion and has now edged up again to £35 billion with a possible finish date of 2031. But watch this space, as EDF is still using 2015 prices, so expect the price tag to soar once more. Unsurprisingly, Hinkley’s ballooning costs have proved controversial with French taxpayers, which are picking up the tab. A bargain!

As for Sizewell C, its future looks far from certain, if not a potentially embarrassing failure. The project was first proposed as a consortium of EDF Energy and China General Nuclear Power, owning 80% and 20% respectively. In 2022 the UK government announced a buy-out to allow for the exit of CGN from the project after a lot of pressure from Tory backbenchers and others. As a consequence, tit-for-tat, CGN halted funding for Hinkley in December. Regarding Sizewell, the British government formed a 50% stake with EDF, though the latter expects this to fall below 20% following “external investment”. The power station is expected to meet up to 7% of the UK’s demand - when and if it comes into service (there is always the possibility that EDF might bail out of the project).

Yet the plain fact of the matter is that every few months or so the British government makes a grandiose public statement about how the future is nuclear, in the hope that a big investor out there will actually believe the hype and step up to fund this outdated and inefficient technology. But the energy industry and just about everybody else with a brain knows that the economic case for vastly expensive nuclear power does not add up and the future is renewable. Hinkley Point C, Sizewell C and the twisting EDF just prove the point.

Adding insult to injury, the government has admitted that its roadmap to building new nuclear power plants will increase household energy costs, but a new reactor will “add at most a few pounds a year to typical household energy bills during the early stages of construction”. But it claims that households would pay less than £1 a month extra on average over the whole construction period. Well, if you believe that ...!

Therefore, it is entirely legitimate to ask the burningly obvious question - why is the government providing extraordinarily generous support for this ailing technology? Why is it hooked to nuclear power? After all, official assessments more or less openly acknowledge that nuclear performs poorly compared to alternatives, with renewables significantly cheaper (and getting considerably cheaper over time, as technology improves - especially when it comes to storage and battery power). By contrast, nuclear is getting increasingly expensive over time, with a secretive state apparatus wrapped around it, and the only new power station under construction - as we have seen above - is still not finished, running many years late and many times over budget. And never mind the safety aspect - just one accident could prove to be catastrophic. There is also the perennial problem of what to do with the nuclear waste - bury it? Shoot it into space?

White paper

The whole thing becomes even more inexplicable and irrational, when you consider that the UK government appears to have given up justifying support for nuclear power in any kind of substantive way - we are just supposed to accept it as given. The last white paper that provided any sort of rigorous argument in energy terms was way back in 2003; and the delayed 2020 white paper did not detail any comparative nuclear and renewable costs - let alone explain why this more expensive option receives such disproportionate funding. But we get a lot closer to the truth with a document published alongside the latest government announcement: the disingenuously named Civil nuclear: roadmap to 2050.1 Yes, it is more about affirming official support than justifying it.

In fact, the roadmap policy document mentions 14 times in different sections the need to continue to strengthen the existing cooperation and tie-ups between the civil and military industries to the benefit of both - they come as a package. The underlying logic is to keep to a minimum the training and development costs for both the weapons and power sectors. Of course, the UK government previously denied the ample evidence that countries with nuclear weapons favour atomic power over renewables.

Other countries

Other countries, however, tend to be more open about the interdependence between ‘civil’ nuclear power and nuclear weaponry. This is certainly the case at presidential level in the US, whilst French president Emmanuel Macron has been quite blunt about it - “without civil nuclear power, no military nuclear power; without military nuclear, no civil nuclear”. This largely explains why nuclear-armed France is pressing the European Union to support nuclear power, and this is why non-nuclear-armed Germany has phased out the nuclear technologies it once pioneered. It is also why other nuclear-armed states are so disproportionately fixated by nuclear power.

For those with eyes to see, the military angle to nuclear power is clear. For example, in 2006 prime minister Tony Blair proclaimed that nuclear power would be “back with a vengeance”. Why? Because, prior to his evangelical statement, there had been a major three-volume study by the military-linked RAND Corporation for the ministry of defence, warning that the UK “industrial base” for design, manufacture and maintenance of nuclear submarines would become unaffordable if the country phased out civil nuclear power. Then a 2007 report by an executive from submarine-makers BAE Systems called for these military costs to be “masked” behind civil programmes, while a secret MoD report in 2014 showed explicitly its belief that declining nuclear power erodes military nuclear skills.

We have repeatedly heard various academics, engineering organisations, research centres, industry bodies and trade unions - monstrously - urging continuing civil nuclear as a means to support military capabilities. Clinching the argument, surely, submarine-reactor manufacturer Rolls Royce in 2007 even issued a special report outlining the case for expensive “small modular reactors” to “relieve the ministry of defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability”.

Given the starkly obvious disadvantages of nuclear compared to renewables, this seemingly strange commitment can only be understood when you realise the elite imperative to sustain the capabilities, skills and supply chain activities necessary for Britain to build, maintain and operate the nuclear-propelled submarines that underpin its nuclear weapons system. In other words, civil nuclear power is a subsidy towards military nuclear activities, and that alone is reason enough for communists to oppose its development.

  1. assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/65aa96bc82fee9000d6f5f91/6.8610_DESNZ_Civil_Nuclear_Roadmap_report.pdf.↩︎