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Trident Coalition split or positive move to safeguard British expertise?

June 18, 2012 12:06 PM
By Lucy Care in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

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 is a member of the Federal Policy Committee, was a councillor in Derby from 1993-2010 and was a General Election Candidate in Derby in 2005 and 2010 She blogs at