A recent article in the Guardian argues that the UK government’s commitment to nuclear energy is linked to the concern about maintaining its prowess in nuclear submarines. The article's authors point to the coincident rise in the government’s arguments supporting nuclear energy and an interest group advocating investment in naval shipbuilding (or what they call the “nuclear lobby”). The argument climaxes in a claim that the UK may have a 'deep state' where policy decisions are made away from the eyes of democracy. Proving or disproving the ‘deep state’ hypothesis is conveniently impossible, like most conspiracy theories since the very nature of a ‘deep state' is that the evidence is hidden. But are there other explanations for the UK's interest in nuclear power? And does the way nuclear power is developing in the country support the 'deep state' - 'nuclear lobby' hypothesis?
With respect to the first question, it's important to examine whether the UK faces the challenges historically associated with the deployment and expansion of nuclear power in industrialized democracies (with or without nuclear submarines): such as energy security (which includes both domestic resource depletion and ageing of existing power plants) as well as looming supply-demand gaps. Without understanding the scale and nature of the UK’s energy challenges it is difficult to buy the article’s assertion that the challenges can met by ‘cheaper, quicker and cleaner renewable technologies’ rather than by ‘costly, risky and slow nuclear power’.
With respect to the political forces driving support for nuclear power, the article argues that they are part of a wider technological system including the ‘nuclear lobby’ which pushes for nuclear energy in order to maintain jobs for nuclear engineers. It certainly seems logical that an industry would try to lobby for political decisions that would favor it. But it’s a stretch to argue that nuclear submarine manufacturers are shaping the UK’s nuclear energy revival given that these companies cannot build commercial nuclear power plants. And even if they did, wouldn't they lobby for the nuclear power reactors to be domestically sourced?
Paradoxically, the UK’s plans to revive its nuclear power rely not on the domestic ‘nuclear lobby’ but rather on French and Chinese companies. In fact, according to a deal which is in the works, EDF would build the Hinkley plant and two Chinese companies would provide the bulk of investment. The international nature of the UK's nuclear power program raises some uncomfortable questions for the ‘deep state’ and the ‘nuclear lobby’ hypotheses. If the ‘deep state’ were driving the program why would they invite foreign companies to build and pay for a new plant? And why would the ‘nuclear lobby’ be playing such a big role if the construction will not even be done by any British company?
It is indeed important to understand why the UK (and other countries) decide to phase-out, revive or expand nuclear power production. But before resorting to the ‘deep state’ hypothesis it would make sense to rationally analyze whether national energy goals can realistically be achieved with non-nuclear technologies and resources.