Looting the Ivory Tower: interview with academics about UK energy policy and nuclear motivations…

Sometimes academics ARE useful to social movements. They have the time and sometimes the training to do research that can help social movements understand what is actually going on, behind the hype, the PR and the intense battles. Much of that work though,can be hard to access, behind either pay-walls or jargon-walls. One solution to this would be for social movement activists to cultivate academics and do interviews with them about their work. If you’re interested in cultivating those skills (finding academics, approaching them, coming up with interview questions etc) , let me know via mcmonthly@gmail.com.

policymixesSo, here we go with an interview, with one of the authors – Dr. Phil Johnstone – of a recent excellent paper “Policy mixes for incumbency: the destructive recreation of renewable energy, shale gas ‘fracking,’ and nuclear power in the United Kingdom

  1. Can you explain what the motivation/curiosity for writing the paper? Can you explain briefly what research you and your co-authors did, and what conclusions you came to about UK energy policy? And in layperson’s terms, what is a policy mix and is ‘destructive recreation’ somehow related to the famous phrase of Joseph Schumpeter about the ‘creative destruction’ that is a result of competition in a free market?

The paper was driven by an empirical curiosity at some interesting developments taking place in UK energy policy over the last few years. The UK is anomalous in Europe and the ‘developed’ world as a whole as it is one of the few countries that is committed to a large nuclear new build programme. Yet, as discussed elsewhere, when considered from the perspectives of innovation theory and socio-technical transitions theory, the intensity of the UK’s nuclear enthusiasm is somewhat puzzling. The UK has a historically poorly performing nuclear industry compared to other countries like Germany that have made the decision to phase out nuclear. At the same time, the UK has by far the abundant and cost-effective renewables resource in Europe. Yet the UK seems to give special priority to the development of new nuclear. At the time of writing the paper, the UK was also one of the few countries in Europe to be intensely pursuing the development of fracking despite huge uncertainties and set-backs. Meanwhile a number of policies in support for renewables had been cut back in 2015.

These developments were intriguing and raised significant questions around ‘policy mixes’ which was the theme of the special issue. Policy mixes is a concept that focusses on the interactions and interdependencies between different policies as they affect the extent to which intended policy outcomes are achieved. This looks at how range of different policies affect the outcome or direction of a certain area such as fracking, nuclear or renewables. Some important work builds on Schumpeter’s insights on ‘creative destruction’ and highlight that as well as nurturing and enabling new technological trajectories, existing incumbent sociotechnical arrangements have to be destabilised through phase-out policies. Often this framing rests on an implicit assumption within sustainability transitions that apart from some ‘regime resistance’, ‘policy makers’ respond to the best evidence on what technological trajectories best fulfil energy security, cost, and climate change priorities. However, through examining the respective levels of policy prioritisation around fracking, nuclear, and renewables and the evidence-base regarding the respective costs and performance of these technologies, it is difficult to conclude that the government is basing its decisions solely in line with energy policy considerations.

2. In the paper you suggest 2015 was a pivotal year – what happened then?

This year was an important one in UK energy when a ‘policy reset’ took place representing a ‘new direction in energy policy’. In this year we saw several support mechanisms for renewables reduced or abolished meanwhile support for fracking and nuclear power intensified. On the renewables side, this included the halting of onshore wind construction, an 85% reduction in the solar Feed-in-Tariff, the abolishment of the green homes scheme, and the removal of a guaranteed renewables obligation subsidy for coal or other fossil plants converting to biomass amongst other changes. Around the same time, loan guarantees worth £2 billion for Hinkley C were being announced along with R&D funds for developing entirely untested Small Modular Reactors. Planning for fracking was fast tracked, a shale wealth fund was created, and a local council decision not to proceed with fracking was overturned by the Home Secretary. So this was a time when the priorities of Government regarding energy trajectories became clear. What we call the ‘policy apparatus’ unveiled at this juncture revealed an intense enthusiasm for fracking and nuclear power in comparison to support for renewables. The effects of this were damaging for the UK renewables industry. This included 12,000 jobs being lost in the solar industry, and investment in UK renewables being halved by the end of 2017. International observers such as Al Gore referred to this ‘policy reset’ as ‘puzzling’.

Looking at the policy priorities revealed during this juncture, it seemed that rather than ‘creative destruction’ something akin to ‘destructive re-creation’ was being enacted. Incumbent and increasingly uncompetitive technologies were given priority in the government’s new energy policy, while renewable technologies had important support measures removed. Again, this is something that runs counter to the implicit notion of policy mixes orienting around ‘creative destruction’ that dominates much transitions thinking.

 3.  In layperson’s terms – what do you and your co-authors suggest is behind the British states support for nuclear and fracking instead of the vastly more popular renewables?

There are of course multiple factors influencing energy trajectories, and key differences between what is influencing support for nuclear and fracking. At a broad level, our analysis indicates that to a certain extent broth fracking and nuclear policy in the UK are driven by factors beyond energy policy and outside of the usual focal point of analysis in ‘sustainability transitions’. As discussed, work in sustainability transitions implicitly assumes that energy policy is generally driven by matters of costs, climate change, and energy security with some levels of resistance from ‘the regime’ yet there are factors beyond energy policy influencing both cases which point to factors that have been somewhat neglected by sustainability transitions approaches. In the case of fracking, we highlight in the paper the well-documented links between the fracking industry and the current government and the privileged access that the industry seems to have with regards to the UK policy process. Rather than this being the case of the incumbent ‘regime’ lobbying the state it in fact seems that the lines between industry and the state are somewhat blurred raising questions regarding how the state is understood in sustainability transitions.

In terms of nuclear, this paper touches on a line of research that Andy Stirling and I have been working on for several years now. To put it simply, our research indicates that sustaining the capabilities to build, operate, and maintain the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet, is a key reason why the UK is so committed to an intense programme of new nuclear power despite increasing costs and lengthy delays. A large civil nuclear programme helps in maintaining a reservoir of key skills, educational investment, R&D, and supply chain activities to be able to construct the extraordinary feats of engineering that are nuclear propelled submarines.

Since this paper was published important developments have occurred. In 2017, following evidence that we submitted to the public Accounts Committee (PAC), Permanent Secretary for the MoD Stephen Lovegrove confirmed that civil nuclear was important for building up the UK’s nuclear submarine industry. Since then, there has now been open declaration of the need to enable ‘mobility’ between civil and defence nuclear and key actors such as Rolls Royce expressing openly that investment in Small Modular Reactor development will ‘reduce the burden’ on the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to maintain capabilities and skills for the UK’s nuclear ‘deterrent.’ A senior politician at BEIS stated that the line between civil and military nuclear is in fact, ‘artificial’, overturning decades of official wisdom regarding the separation of civil and military nuclear activities.

In 2017 in the USA, a series of high level reports also confirmed that a declining civil nuclear programme would seriously undermine the USA’s nuclear submarine capability and thus civil nuclear power should be pursued and further subsidized on the grounds of national defence. As we have written about in the Nuclear Industry Status Report 2018 and elsewhere with nuclear increasingly becoming obsolete as it is increasingly outperformed by renewables, the countries where new nuclear is most intensely pursued are nuclear weapons states and states aspiring to have a nuclear weapons capability. Yet, while in the USA the military rationale for constructing civil nuclear power is acknowledged, this issue has been largely neglected in the UK in terms of parliamentary scrutiny and wider media coverage despite the more acute challenges the UK faces due to its smaller economy and far smaller nuclear industry.


4. Besides being ignored and being called ‘conspiracy theorists’ has there been any substantive critique of your hypothesis so far?

Prior to 2017 we were indeed called ‘conspiracy theorists’ by among others, representatives in the pro-nuclear organization the Breakthrough Institute. After the dramatic policy revelations in 2017 on both sides of the Atlantic confirming the interdependencies between civil and military nuclear this position is no long tenable. We had some criticism from a prominent trade unionist in the Guardian following a blog that we published, however this did not engage with the substance of the evidence we have documented.

Another more recent response is to give the impression that it has always been the case that these interdependencies have existed so it’s no big deal. But there are two problems with this response. The first is that civil-military nuclear interdependencies have not been acknowledged until very recently so this points to a serious lack of transparency in the UK’s ‘nuclear renaissance’. The reasons they are now slowly being acknowledged and pushed to the surface is because of the declining fortunes of nuclear power in the UK and elsewhere. Second, this is a big deal. Putting an exact number on it is tricky, but with top up payments from Hinkley C alone amounting to some tens of billions of pounds over a 35-year period, and with the costs of low carbon renewables continuing to fall even further below new nuclear, substantial additional costs are set to be paid by British consumers in order to support the military nuclear industry without any discussion or democratic scrutinisation.

5. How do you think academic work like your own could be more useful not to the usual “stakeholders” – by which we seem to mean policymakers (politicians and civil servants) and business groups – but to other stakeholders, such as citizens, NGOs, unions etc?  Is there some “good practice” that you see being done?

This work highlights the importance of examining the broader topic of qualities of democracy that can be useful for a range of stakeholders. There has been significant scrutiny of fracking and important journalistic work revealing the close connections between government and the fracking industry that reveal something decidedly anti-democratic in the determination to push fracking through. So on that front there is a lot of great work being done which enables citizens to have a more balanced idea of why their government is so determined to pursue a policy option that seems counter-intuitive.

On the nuclear front however, there has not been the same level of scrutiny despite the National Audit Office clearly stating that there are reasons ‘beyond the energy trillema’ for why the UK is so intensely pursuing new nuclear. The National Audit Office also outlined that it was a “bad deal” that had “locked in” British citizens into something that was “risky and expensive”. The Public Accounts Committee then concluded that this was a deal that would “hit the poor the hardest”. That’s only Hinkley C, before we consider further unprecedented financial privileges for nuclear such as the RAB model of financing, and even more funding for entirely untested SMRs, or government taking a direct stake in nuclear which the Labour Party seem to want to do. Yet the fundamental question of why there is such determination to pursue new nuclear in the UK is rarely examined in the media or parliament, or by prominent NGOs.

It seems to be the case, that commitments to sustaining military nuclear capabilities is a key reason yet are almost entirely neglected in policy discussions and analysis. Whether you are pro are anti-nuclear power or nuclear weapons, that these matters remain undiscussed is deeply worrying in terms of the current state of British democracy.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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