A military bromance: SMRs to support and cross-subsidize the UK nuclear weapons program

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Industry and government in the UK openly promote SMRs on the grounds that an SMR industry would support the nuclear weapons program (in particular the submarine program) by providing a pool of trained nuclear experts, and that in so doing an SMR industry will cross-subsidize the weapons program. Such arguments are problematic for several reasons. Firstly, the weapons program is problematic and the UK's compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations is questionable. Secondly, why subsidize an SMR industry to subsidize the weapons program ‒ why not simply invest more in the weapons program directly? Thirdly, there are strong reasons to firewall civil nuclear programs from military programs yet there is no longer any pretense of a firewall.

The arguments are clearly stated in a 2017 report by Rolls-Royce.1 The company trumpets its role in powering and maintaining the UK Royal Navy submarine fleet. But its recent interest in civil SMRs isn't a case of swords-to-ploughshares … it's ploughshares-supporting-swords. The report states:1

"The indigenous UK supply chain that supports defence nuclear programmes requires significant ongoing support to retain talent and develop and maintain capability between major programmes. Opportunities for the supply chain to invest in new capability are restricted by the limited size and scope of the defence nuclear programme. A UK SMR programme would increase the security, size and scope of opportunities for the UK supply chain significantly, enabling long-term sustainable investment in people, technology and capability.

"Expanding the talent pool from which defence nuclear programmes can draw from would bring a double benefit. First, additional talent means more competition for senior technical and managerial positions, driving excellence and performance. Second, the expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability. This would free up valuable resources for other investments."

So SMRs will relieve the Ministry of Defence of the "burden" of paying for its own WMD programs!

Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone have carefully studied the links between the UK's nuclear power program and the weapons program.2 They wrote in The Guardian in March 2018:3

"Their [National Audit Office] 2008 costing of military nuclear activities states: "One assumption of the future deterrent programme is that the United Kingdom submarine industry will be sustainable and that the costs of supporting it will not fall directly on the future deterrent programme." If the costs of keeping the national nuclear submarine industry in business must fall elsewhere, what could that other budget be? 

"Although unstated, by far the most likely source for such support is a continuing national civil nuclear programme. And this where the burgeoning hype around UK development of SMRs comes in. Leading designs for these reactors are derived directly from submarine propulsion. British nuclear submarine reactor manufacturer Rolls-Royce is their most enthusiastic champion. But, amid intense media choreography, links between SMRs and submarines remain (aside from reports of our own work) barely discussed in the UK press.

"This neglect is odd, because the issues are very clear. Regretting that military programmes are no longer underwritten by civil nuclear research, a heavily redacted 2014 MoD report expresses serious concerns over the continued viability of the UK nuclear submarine industry. And Rolls-Royce itself is clear that success in securing government investment for SMRs would "relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability" for the UK's military nuclear sector. Other defence sources are also unambiguous that survival of the British nuclear submarine industry depends on continuation of UK civil nuclear power. Many new government initiatives focus intently on realising the military and civil synergies.

"Some nuclear enthusiasts have called this analysis a conspiracy theory, but these links are now becoming visible. In response to our own recent evidence to the UK Public Accounts Committee, a senior civil servant briefly acknowledged the connections. And with US civil nuclear programmes collapsing, the submarine links are also strongly emphasised by a former US energy secretary. Nuclear submarines are evidently crucial to Britain's cherished identity as a "global power". It seems that Whitehall's infatuation with civil nuclear energy is in fact a military romance."


1. Rolls-Royce, 2017, 'UK SMR: A National Endeavour', https://www.uknuclearsmr.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/V2088-Rolls-Royc...

2. Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone, 23 Oct 2018, 'A global picture of industrial interdependencies between civil and military nuclear infrastructures', Nuclear Monitor #868, https://www.wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/868/global-picture-ind...

3. Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone, 29 March 2018, 'Why is the UK government so infatuated with nuclear power?', https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/mar/29/why-is... Against a worldwide background