Economic Nationalism and Nuclear Energy

The problem with drinking patriotic Kool Aid is that it can’t help but lead to hallucinations. And it doesn’t matter if the beverage concerned is traditional true blue vintage or a home brew knock off tribute version.

Surreal is not usually a word I would associate with the General, Municipal and Boilermakers Union, but their comment on the government decision to try to cut out Chinese involvement in UK Nuclear power plant construction – that this is a huge opportunity to regain the UK’s position as the world leader in new nuclear (1) – is bizarre for a number of reasons.

  • The UK has not been a world leader in new nuclear since about 1957.
  • In 2019 the countries installing the most new nuclear power plants were China and Russia. (2)
  • Since 1990, Japan and France have dominated global nuclear R&D, with 64% of expenditure between them. (3)

The UKs proposed £250 million investment in developing Small Modular Reactors as part of the government’s 10 point Plan is such a tiny fraction of this that it might be more accurately categorised as a token gesture.

Nevertheless, SMR plants, based on a souped up version of Rolls Royce’s nuclear motors for submarines – will – if they go ahead – produce electricity that is a third more expensive even than that produced by large reactors at the moment; in a context in which the costs of renewables are constantly falling. Why the industry projects that these expensive baby white elephants would create a viable export industry is a mystery – especially after somewhat larger funding to kick start a similar project in the USA was pulled in 2017 (4).

Promises of a nuclear new dawn larded down with bunting are hardy perennials. In 2015, George Osborne promised that that at least £250m would be spent by 2020 on an “ambitious” programme to “position the UK as a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies”.(5) Same old figure. Same old patriotic bluster. Welcome to the new announcement. Same as the old announcement.

Plans for 6 new large power stations have now been cut to 3. Cost overruns and delays are built in, as is a high price for the electricity eventually generated. The price for electricity generated by Hinckley C is £92.50 per megawatt hour; twice the wholesale price. This plant, being constructed by EDF, was supposed to be built by 2017, but is now not expected until 2026. It will cost £23bn, not the original £16bn in the contract. Sizewell C is projected to cost another £20 billion, with the costs falling on bill payers even before its up and running.

There are many reasons not to go down the nuclear route. Chinese involvement is not one of them.

Workers at Fukushima showing how safe nuclear power is.  IAEA Imagebank is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The argument to break the contract with China’s “state owned nuclear energy company”, as the GMB puts it, is on “security” grounds. This is only an issue if the government is projecting a future of increasing hostility. This is not something being generated by the Chinese. We are sending an aircraft carrier to their backyard. They are not sending one to ours. The whole labour movement should see this new Cold War atmosphere as a threat, not dress it up as an opportunity.

  1. Chinese nuclear block ‘staggering U-turn’ from Conservatives | GMB

2. Nuclear Power – Analysis – IEA

3. Energy Subsidies – World Nuclear Association (world-nuclear.org)

4. UK: Power from SMRs 30% more expensive than large reactors | Wise International

5. UK government to release funding for mini nuclear power stations | Energy industry | The Guardian