Opinion: Trident coalition split or positive move to safeguard British expertise?

The Government announces investment in Rolls-Royce to safeguard technology for nuclear propulsion, and the BBC’s angle, is “Is this another Coalition split?”

Let’s get this right.

Take aircraft engines.  Rolls-Royce made its name back in World War Two by developing the gas turbine to power military aircraft.  It was earth-shattering stuff, but had nothing to do with the development of munitions.

Indeed, no one these days thinks that every aircraft powered by a jet engine is a military plane. The technology is transferable: Gas turbines power most civil aircraft, and large ships, help generate electricity and even force gas through miles of pipeline.  

What is the Government is investing in?

The Conservatives will see it as supporting the first phrase of the Coalition Agreement about Trident, where it says: “We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent…” This point goes on to say: “…and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money… ”

This investment in Rolls-Royce should ensure that the UK continues to be able to design and manufacture very low maintenance, reliable, mobile power plants, fuelled by uranium.  What we then use them for is a separate decision to be taken in the future, but it sounds like it could be ‘value for money’.  

Low carbon future

I would have liked this announcement to have followed a funding transfer from the MoD to DECC.  This is why…

If we are to continue to have global trade, then we must address the carbon emissions from international shipping.  This is currently a stumbling block for climate change negotiations, but it seems inevitable that emission targets will be agreed in due course.

Oil and coal are dense, easily transportable energy sources.  On land these can be replaced by electricity – with trains and trams connected to grid electricity and cars using batteries.  On the sea neither is a practical alternative.

So what is the low carbon alternative?

We could slow down transport; by going back to wind-power, or we could abandon the global economy.  The impact that this would have on the well-being of the vast majority of the world population is not something that is currently tenable.

However, it is not just carbon that we need to consider.  Although BP has again produced a remarkably upbeat review of world energy, a closer look at their figures casts doubt on their optimism about long term oil supplies – particularly given that the average oil price last year was the highest since 1864 (in present day money terms).

The alternative is nuclear shipping

There are already nuclear powered surface ships – mostly icebreakers, but also drilling rigs and aircraft carriers.  The safety record for such nuclear propulsion units is good and experience continues to be gathered.

If the choice is between limiting international trade because of carbon emissions or shortage/cost of fuel, or allowing nuclear powered container ships into commercial ports, which will win?  I know which I think!

And if this is the future, how do we ensure that the UK is part of this industry?  Clearly it must be to safeguard and build on our current expertise.

The only trouble with this argument is the very thin line between government investment in nuclear power for propulsion (as here) and public money being invested in nuclear power for electricity generation into the national grid which we have rejected…

As uranium is, like fossil fuels, a finite resource, I believe it should not be squandered where renewables can be used.  Thus I reject using uranium to generate electricity for the national grid, but am happy to use it as a dense fuel for mobile applications – until an alternative becomes available.

* Lucy Care was a councillor in Derby from 1993-2010 and was a General Election Candidate in Derby in 2005 and 2010 She blogs at lucycare.net.

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20 Comments

  • Uranium may be a finite resource, but it’s not the only fission fuel source available – aren’t other potential fuels such as deuterium common enough that they will last (theretically) longer than the sun will? I’d say the national grid is more important than shipping, anyway, and your argument here against one but for the other doesn’t seem to make sense to me…

  • Coalition Agreement “…and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money… ” as quoted by Lucy. Of course such a review could conclude that the only value for money option is not to renew it at all. That would be the correct option. However one indulges in the (usually futile) exercise of peering decades into the future it is truly hard to imagine a scenario where a submarine based nuclear weapon system is going to be of any value. This weapon was conceived in the 1950’s when nuclear weapon delivery from mobile sites which could not be wiped out by a pre-emptive strike did not exist. That is no longer true at all. The threat has also gone. Even if rogue states or terrorists had nuclear capability a submarine based response is neither a useful deterrent nor necessary for retaliation. I could go on much more. There is just no conceivable use for, or value in, this weapon system. All the rest of Lucy’s argument about the civilian value of nuclear power is fine so the contact on Rolls Royce is not inevitably a waste. Why not stick these engines in the aircraft carriers? A key issue is what to do about the workforce in Barrow in Furness, but I’m not arguing that we have no use for submarines as such. Just for those carrying Trident type missiles.

  • I would have great concern for nuclear propulsion in civilian shipping. At present the control and maintenance of ‘mobile’ reactors is generally in the hands of nation states. The components within a reactor can be used to produce so called “dirty” bombs and need to be strictly controlled. In reality, these units have a military / significantly controlled use only.

    Try as we may to dress this up, this is a bloody nose for the Lib Dems. Much noise has been made about the victory of delaying the decision regarding Trident. Today’s decision commits over 1 Billion pounds, this is relevant because in May on this site Nick Harvey wrote:

    “In reality the final decision for Trident replacement is still years away. Until 2016’s Main Gate decision, the ‘point of no return’ at which contracts are finalised and billions of pounds committed, there are still important questions to be asked about the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

    And if it wasn’t for Liberal Democrat influence in this Government, this simply would not be the case. It is because we are in this Government that Trident is being properly scrutinised to see if it is the right and most responsible deterrent the UK should have.”

  • Leviticus18_23 18th Jun '12 - 12:04pm

    Is there a second Falklands War coming?

    We’ll need those subs to protect our oil and fishing rights… Oh, sorry, I mean to protect the sovereignty of the islanders.

  • @Lucy
    ” Rolls-Royce made its name back in World War Two by developing the gas turbine to power military aircraft.”

    Sorry it’s slightly pedantic I know, but I would say that RR actually made it’s name in WW2 for the Merlin engine (as per your picture) that powered many famous aircraft, RR really made it’s name in developing jet engines after WW2, the original engines were manufactured by RR but developed by Whittle.

  • ……………………And if it wasn’t for Liberal Democrat influence in this Government, this simply would not be the case. It is because we are in this Government that Trident is being properly scrutinised to see if it is the right and most responsible deterrent the UK should have.”………………….

    And the moon is made of green cheese. Tory policy is to renew ‘Trident’. There are no ‘buts’; the old adage of,”Follow the money” shows that the current spending is to keep the programme ‘on-track’ so, when (not if) the announcement is made, renewal can continue with the minimum of fuss.

    There is no strategic value of ‘Trident’ (Please give me a future scenario in which the UK will, unilaterally, use nukes). Having a nuclear option merely allows the UK to sit at the table with the ‘big-boys’; that is all.

  • Mike Falchikov 18th Jun '12 - 3:38pm

    Point taken about ~RollsRoyce. However, we shouldn’t take our eyes off the real ball which is, of course, the attempt
    by MoD to bounce the Lib Dems into accepting the continuation/replacement of Trident on the grounds that “money’s
    already been spent – too expensive to cancel”. There is no good reason for Britain to have its own nuclear deterrent.
    The arguments are well-rehearsed and even a former defence chief has recently spoken against, though there are still
    some old-time cold warriors around who still talk of “a threat from the East” (i.e. Moscow). THe main thing is that most Lib Dems are fundamentally opposed to a British nuclear deterrent – we must not allow the parliamentary party
    to sit on the fence about this. Surely it’s a point of principle – isn’t it?

  • @Mike Falchikov
    “Surely it’s a point of principle – isn’t it?”

    It can’t be really as the coalition agreement accepts the need for a continuing nuclear deterrent, therefore the Lib Dems have accepted this. Trident replacement is happening, it was always going to happen, and any noise to the contrary is just smoke and mirrors. As to examining alternatives, where is the working party, the project teams the feasibility studies etc. The MOD works very slowly (as an ex serviceman I can guarantee this) and if any alternative was seriously being considered the wheels would have had to be in motion. If more than one option was being considered as much would be being spent on that project as the early planning for the submarine based ICBM one.

    People should stop kidding themselves there is a victory to be had with Trident, the eventual disappointment will be larger the longer it takes for the truth to be accepted.

  • Charles Beaumont 18th Jun '12 - 4:04pm

    Interesting article. An important point on oil supplies – there is plenty of evidence that there will be lots of oil in the future. The challenge will be that it costs more to extract (and doing so is very dirty) as well as demand increasing massively. That last point is the real problem.

  • Old Codger Chris 18th Jun '12 - 4:50pm

    Jason, Mike Falchikov and Steve Way are absolutely right. Logic doesn’t enter into this, it’s just another example of the UK behaving as if Queen Victoria were still on the throne.

    And Labour’s policy on this is identical to the Tories’ – the Lib Dems are missing an opportunity to differentiate themselves by saying NO to a British so-called deterrent.

  • Steve Coltman 18th Jun '12 - 7:25pm

    Lucy has suggested before that nuclear power could be used more widely to power surface ships than hitherto, and she may be right or wrong but the investment announced recently regarding Rolls-Royce is about reactors for submarines, and in particular a new class of ballistic missile subs to carry Trident. (We also have a fleet of 7 nuclear-powered ‘hunter-killer’ subs but the Astute class are brand new and it will be a long time before we need to build their replacements)
    Notwithstanding many people’s objection to Britain having a deterrent, the majority view in this country is that we should. Neither the Conservatives, nor Labour, are going to opt for unilateral disarmament and the only argument left open is ‘what sort of deterrent should we have?’ The door to this argument is only just barely open. There is currently a review going on to look at alternatives to Trident, instigated by Nick Harvey, but the Tories regard this as a sop to us rather than a serious exercise. It looks as if the MoD is planning for a new class of ballistic missile subs regardless of the outcome of the review.
    I think Ming Campbell’s insistence that no final decision has been made, nor will be made until 2015, is putting a brave face on things. I suspect the Tories/MoD are forging ahead with the new ballistic missile submarines regardless. Some members of this party are so opposed to nuclear weapons they simply cannot move on and participate in any debate about what kind of deterrent we should have. They should stand aside and leave it to those of us who can. Because the debate about what kind of deterrent is the only one we have any earthly chance of winning and not a good chance even of that. It is nonetheless an important debate, because so much of the defence budget will be consumed by the deterrent that the conventional forces, already badly damaged by defence cuts, will suffer even more.
    I agree with Old Codger Chris on one point – this is an opportunity to differentiate us from Labour and the Conservatives and we should not spurn it.

  • “there are fissile alternatives to uranium – thorium is the one most people consider – but I believe commercial thorium reactors are still to be proven”

    Unfortunately we (the UK) maybe about to throw the baby out with the bath water!
    We (the UK) are about to embark on building a batch of new nuclear power stations and also nuclear fueled mobile power plants. We are therefore in a position to either stick with the old “tried and tested” uranium-based technology with all of its inherent problems or take a leap and become a world leader in new thorium based technology. Each has its risks, however adopting thorium would give a more significant economic boost than paying some foreign companies to build a new generation of uranium reactors.

    So yes well done to the government for investing in a British high technology company, (and additional marks for the Tories to have done this given their previous record under the leadership of Mrs Thatcher), but room for improvement.

  • Thank you Lucy for an excellent article.. it helps those of us who are not technical to sort it out in our minds, a pity about the pedants and the technical ones who want to split hairs, what you say makes absolute sense. This is just the sort of straightforward explanation of our policy approach that should be coming out of HQ every day.

  • @Lucy Care
    “life is full of risks, and the challenge is how we manage them”

    This is true, but the multi-national Naval forces currently stationed off the Horn of Africa combined with armed guards (many of whom are highly trained ex UK servicemen) cannot keep ship falling into the hands of criminal gangs. The Ocean and by definition the trade routes over it are simple too vast to police effectively. If we allow Nuclear materials to be used in this way it is a recipe for disaster.

    And that does not take into account the use of foreign flags to reduce the need for adequate safety provision. Do we want a ship flagged by a third world country with little regulation being powered by a Nuclear reactor ?

    Accident / neglect or terrorism any expansion of private sector nuclear power on the seas is a recipe for disaster…

  • Steve Coltman 19th Jun '12 - 2:09pm

    The first comment, from Z said: “Uranium may be a finite resource, but it’s not the only fission fuel source available – aren’t other potential fuels such as deuterium common enough that they will last (theretically) longer than the sun will?”

    Z has got it wrong, there may be an infinite supply of deuterium but it is not fissile. Nuclear fission is the splitting up of a big atomic nucleus into two smaller nuclei plus various other particles. Deuterium is a very small nucleus and can be made to do the opposite, ie undergo fusion. There is certainly a lot of deuterium about but getting to undergo controlled fusion (or any other kind of useful fusion reaction) has proved extremely difficult and still lies many years in the future.

    There are only two elements that undergo nuclear fission, that is uranium and plutonium. Uranium being a naturally-occurring substance and Pu largely a man-made by-product of uranium-fuelled fission. Thorium is often cited as the third heavy element capable of fission but that is not strictly correct. When bombarded with neutrons Thorium can be momentarily converted into uranium 233 which then undergoes fission. There is a lot more thorium about than there is uranium, but it is also a finite resource.
    As I understand it, we (the UK) are better off sticking with proven uranium-fuelled (and maybe uranium+plutonium-fuelled) reactors for two reasons. 1st, I am told we are sitting on a big stockpile of Uranium (and we have >100 tonnes of plutonium) but have no reserves of thorium. Secondly, Thorium reactors are in their infancy – they are different technology to uranium reactors, it suspect it is not simply a matter of putting a different fuel into the same reactor. We currently need new generating capaity quickly. The Lab govt sat on things and the existing coal and nuclear plants are approaching the end of their working lives. Only 3rd generation uranium reactors (basically an improved version of existing reactors) are ready to go now. And we need to build something now, it is getting urgent.

  • In passing, Lucy mentioned the use of nuclear reactors to power aircraft carriers.
    Although I cannot say whether it is true or not, I have been told that the reason why the Coalition Government came unstuck over aircraft carriers recently was that they naively thought that all they needed to make the new carriers suitable for fixed wing aircraft were an angled deck, arrester gear and steam catapults.
    What they overlooked was that the new carriers are to be powered by gas turbines and gas turbines don’t have boilers. Hence no steam for steam catapults.
    The USA’s carriers are nuclear powered. Hence they have boilers. Hence they have steam catapults. Hence they can operate fixed wing aircraft.
    But it’s probably all nonsense.

  • Lucy and Steve are both correct (and wrong) It is necessary now to start the development work on the next submarine reactor plant . It takes about 15 years to develop and manufacture and build it. For british subs the power plant is the same regardless of the baot type (missile carrier or fast attack). Only the Americans can afford different plants for different platforms, and although they still field the old Ohio class as their strategic deterrent they are building a class of 30 “Virginia” to protect their carriers task forces. We cannot contemplate sending our very expensive new aircarft carriers to sea without submarine protection. Although Astute is a new class its reactor plant is old design, by the time the carriers are in service the later build Astutes although relativelynew boats will be old technology..

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