Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/12/nuclear_under_the_libcons/

Trident, nuke energy looking poorly under LibCons

Bet on sub-cruise nukes, power station delays

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 12th May 2010 12:02 GMT

Updated Details on the new Conservative/Liberal coalition government are now emerging, as are those of the policy deal struck between the allied parties. On first look, it would appear that the replacement of the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system like-for-like and the planned new generation of nuclear power stations have been thrown into doubt.

[Updated to add: Following release of more detail from the Coalition it appears that the power stations will be subject to a further Commons debate, but if the Coalition stands, so will new nuclear.]

Regarding Trident, the Tories' Liam Fox takes charge at the MoD: but the issue of the deterrent will be decided nationally, so this isn't particularly significant. The Tories are committed to replacing Trident with an equally-capable submarine-launched ICBM system, but they have failed to get agreement on this from the Lib Dems. The coalition agreement specifies that the government remains “committed to the maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrent”, but also that the Liberals can "continue to make the case for alternatives" and that the Trident replacement will be formally reviewed.

This sets the stage for another Commons vote on replacing Trident at some point in the next year or two, with the Liberals seeking to have it cancelled in favour of a potentially less expensive option - most probably involving the use of cruise missiles rather than ICBMs, perhaps even air-launched rather than submarine-carried ones.

In theory this vote couldn't be won, as Labour said it would replace Trident in its manifesto. However many Labour MPs are personally opposed to this, and it would seem at least possible that the new party leadership won't consider itself bound by Gordon Brown's manifesto commitment - not enough to three-line-whip its many antinuclear MPs into supporting the Tories, anyway.

There would be strong support from within the armed forces for any move to replace Trident with something cheaper, as the MoD budget going forward is ruinously overbooked and all three services fear cuts to things they want in order to pay for new ballistic-missile subs and ICBMs. The army would much rather have its proposed £14bn supertank force, the Future Rapid Effects Systems. The Navy wants its new carriers and - much more expensive - stealth jumpjets to fly from them. The RAF would rather spend the money on new and enhanced Eurofighters, and would also be extremely keen on the idea of air-launched nukes.

This last is relatively unlikely: deputy PM Nick Clegg has previously suggested that he favours the idea of arming the new Astute class attack submarines - already designed to fire Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles - with nuclear warheads. This would be an option potent and survivable enough to satisfy many nuclear-deterrent advocates, and Tomahawks could be obtained cheaply (in this context) from the US. The only major bill to be paid would be that for a new British warhead to go on them. There would be savings on the order of billions per year to be had down the road, compared to replacing Trident like-for-like. This is insignificant in the context of the UK's imperilled public finances, but worth having nonetheless.

Nuclear power: Has Commons majority, but no ministers on side

The argument will also be made that the likely target of Britain's next-gen nukes is no longer Russia, whose powerful air defences cruise missiles (simply robot aeroplanes, after all) might struggle to penetrate. Rather, nations on the order of North Korea, Iran and so on would be in the frame. Though Russian air-defence kit is slowly proliferating to such customers, they are for now vulnerable to cruise missile strikes and as such can be effectively deterred by the prospect of nuclear-tipped ones.

Overall, in the cash-strapped climate to be expected in the new Parliament, you have to say that cancellation of a full Trident replacement now looks quite likely.

On the matter of new nuclear power, the situation is much less clear. Again, both Labour and Tories are formally committed to new stations and the Lib Dems are against. But the Lib Dems now control the relevant ministries, with Chris Huhne in charge of Environment and Climate Change and Vince Cable at Business, and the new LibCon agreement doesn't bind them to support Tory policy on nuclear power.

Getting new nuclear power stations built is supposed to be a matter for the market - for companies such as French nuke giant EDF, for instance. On the face of it the business case is clear; if new UK nuclear power stations can be built at the same costs EDF pays to build them in France, it will make money.

But in France the building of nuclear power stations is an established thing and firmly backed by the government. In the UK, by contrast, opposition is vociferous and acts through both legal and illegal channels. With potentially hostile politicians now controlling the relevant ministries, UK nuclear power may no longer look such an attractive investment. This is particularly so as some of nuclear power's strongest British backers - the industrial unions - have now lost much of their clout in Parliament and Whitehall following the ousting of Labour.

The disappearance of nuclear power would be almost certain to result in the UK failing to achieve its desired carbon-emissions targets, but nuclear power will not disappear in the next five years. Cable and Huhne can safely play a spoiling game against new stations - probably without any need for a Commons vote where union-backed Labour MPs might join the Tories against them - and avoid taking any flak for rising carbon output after they change jobs, while gaining prestige within their own party meanwhile.

Not a good day for EDF and new nuclear, then. It might well have been worse, though - a LibLab alliance would have given still greater clout to the Liberals, and to other antinuclear parties too.

Unsurprisingly EDF stock fell by two Euros following the election results last week (wiping 5 per cent off the company's value) and took another wild plunge on Monday when it appeared that a LibLab pact might be on the cards - though that second dip was wiped out following David Cameron's eventual move into No. 10. ®

Updated to Add

Following the release of the full text of the Lib-Con pact, it is clear that in fact there will be a Commons vote on new nuclear power stations at which the Lib Dems will speak against, but abstain. The Tories intend to vote in favour, which should carry the issue.