history of the reasons why Britain Govt likes nuclear despite all the downsides

Neil, et al,

Thanks for your comments. You give a whole stack of good reasons why nuclear is unattractive, but still the establishment pursues it, at vast costs in environment, security, cash, credibility and so on, and have ignored many of these costs. So why do they still do it. Do they not see history looking over their shoulder?

I remain convinced that the core driver is military, even if this is not explicitly part of the argument, it is a core part of the nuclear culture, and so need not be explicitly stated.

I have recently read an official history of Windscale 1957: Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident, written by Lorna Arnold, who spent much of her career in the AEA. It was provoked by her obituary, and the Abebooks copy I have is a discard from the National Power Library – it was withdrawn once! Highly recommended reading.

Much of the book is an exploration of the pressures leading up to the construction of the Windscale piles. There is no doubt that the key driver was to keep close to the US, and one of the few ways the UK could do this was by having a bomb, and related wherewithal. The US were not keen to have the Brits with nuclear weapons – they would much rather have it to themselves. And having a bomb meant having a very significant infrastructure, both physical – Windscale was mostly a chemical plant to separate plutonium from uranium – and intellectual – the capability to understand and solve problems. This last was in part in the universities, but it was also industrial, in the capabilities of shipyards and aero design and manufacture. The Brits felt that the Yanks had not kept the side of the deal by which it shred several deep industrial secrets, and there was a significant strange the US thought (military and otherwise) that was utterly against the British Empire, and felt that it was an Empire war that they had been dragged into. (I am sure there was a string element of US national commercial self-interest as well) To negotiate with the Yanks meant demonstrating that we were very serious about UK nuclear capability. Hence the atom bomb tests in Australia, despite US disapproval. Plutonium and related capability was perceived as vital to keeping us in with the US.

Does this remain true today? I think so. Vital UK military and national interests depend upon good relations with the US, and the ability to get key concessions out of them. Partially in the form of arms (and related technology) and  partially to keep our arms industry with a real outlet, both the US and to the rest of the world. I suspect this is why were went into Iraq and Afghanistan. Blair undoubtedly has his arm (and balls) twisted by Bush, and what would we do on the international stage if we did not have a special relationship with the US. GCHQ helps, but is not enough.

Does this relationship depend upon our nuclear capacities and in particular upon civil nuclear electricity?

Objectively, I do not think so, but I do think that, within the thinking of the nuclear industry, the two are very closely tied together. Perhaps less in physical infrastructure than it used to be. After all, we insist that countries must separate civilian and military nuclear capabilities – like centrifuges. But a lot of that infrastructure – and particularly the “knowhow” aspects of it – and a vital hinterland to military nuclear capability.

Need this ever be discussed? Not really. It is better just kept in the background, and communicated in much less military terms. “Nuclear is vital to the mix.” Since this is true in military terms, it must also be true for civilian uses. And we do not want it debated, just assumed and unchallenged. So the problems fir the future can be ignored.



One comment on “history of the reasons why Britain Govt likes nuclear despite all the downsides

  1. Many of the issues Dave raises are probably an extension of that overall never-ending oil-military parasitic legacy. Much of it hard to be proud of and still paying for today. Much of it our fault – the British.

    The flip side is the technological advances which often come with undiminished militaristic tendencies of the West, including nuclear. But at what cost?

    One thing that the Claverton ERG could assist with, in terms of our understanding good objective ‘energy science’ or ‘energy economics’ is to disseminate any robust and independent studies (if one could ever remove subjectivity and bias entirely) on cost-benefit analysis (CBA) of all current available energy generation sources. Including the pros and cons of nuclear. The work of Prof David Mackay “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” springs to mind as a recent and well-known choice, but the group may know of others and possibly more recent, relevant university research papers?

    In our local initiative – Linlithgow Natural Grid – started by Chris Cook, we’ve begun using CBA on the microscale for 14 different SolarPV funded/CAPEX/dividend/etc models soon to be applied to real life projects.

    This is challenging enough for single generation technologies, and single buildings even, given the myriad of factors. So helping the layperson – never mind politician – understand the bigger picture of all energy-generating options on the macroscale, could be very useful. Especially given the heightened energy debates society currently finds itself in.

    Accepting on the one hand the benefit of energy intensity of nuclear, I remember distinctly as an Environmental Science undergraduate of Lancaster Uni visiting Sellafield in the late 80s, and sold a convincing story about the robust health and safety record and systems of the power station, never mind the purported minuscule fraction of radiation that escapes from the site in comparison to background sources. There was even a story retold by their resident safety engineer, that the fire at Windscale, in 1957, and resultant radiation dose helped reduce local throat cancer incidence rather than increase it.

    On the other hand, and some weeks after our field trip, the BBC NW news ran an article about infertility there reaching as high as 50% of the male workforce! Having been previously impressed as a fresh-faced undergrad of the merits and £/kWh output of nuclear, as well as carbon emissions reductions, latterly and ironically through more research by fellow MSc students some years later on the impacts of dealing with low, medium and high level wastes, it became more apparent this was definitely no panacea to our energy supply problems.

    In a recent Water, Energy & Environment article, it was reported that solar technologies today could provide 3.8 times the world’s energy requirement. We’ve known this for some time, even if just a hunch. The sun actually provides 1200 times our needs every day, albeit in diffuse radiation that is not always cost effective to harness at every location.

    One area for elucidation is that of subsidy. With the expectation that sound, objective, balanced, economic and scientific scrutiny actually exists, surely we can wipe away the myths, discredit the unfair fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies and tax breaks that still prevail today. Those enjoyed by the renewable industry still pale into insignificance.

    And then we’ll have an even more robust platform to build a new energy economy on energy efficiency, reinvestment of energy savings and community-led renewable energy generation. ‘Hope’ is all.

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