Is Ireland ready to take on the nuclear option to tackle climate change?

Is Ireland ready to take on the nuclear option to tackle climate change?

40 years after the Carnsore Point protests ended nuclear power generation as an option in Ireland, the climate crisis has put it back on the agenda again, writes Caroline O’Doherty

Is Ireland ready to take on the nuclear option to tackle climate change?

DEBATE about nuclear power in Ireland has traditionally been fuelled by two opposing fears.

One is the fear of energy insecurity — the concern that, because of politics, conflict or self-interest, the countries we rely on for oil and gas could cut our supply line, causing economic catastrophe.

The argument goes that we could safeguard against this if we were self-sufficient in energy thanks to having our own nuclear power.

Then there is the fear of that power itself, the worry that, if something went wrong through mishap, misfortune or malice, a catastrophe of a different kind would result.

But more recently, another fear has entered the discussion — the climate crisis and Ireland’s struggle to come up with a plan that will decarbonise our energy quickly enough to help avoid the havoc it threatens.

Nuclear, with considerable irony given its role in the formation of the green movement throughout Europe, is a low-carbon alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

One nuclear power plant could provide the same energy as an array of wind turbines and solar farms — installations that are facing growing local opposition here.

But could nuclear ever be acceptable in Ireland, a country that has lived in the shadow of Sellafield and the less than exemplary practices observed there, a country that has taken the children of Chernobyl into its hearts and homes, a country that has a legal prohibition on nuclear power?

Denis Duff believes it is only a matter of time. A mechanical engineer with a 32-year career in ESB behind him before becoming an independent consultant, Duff is a founder of BENE, Better Environment with Nuclear Energy, a lobby group that wants Ireland to reconsider its attitude to nuclear.

“We’re going down an emissions cul-de-sac,” he says.

"I’ve got no doubt in my mind that Ireland will need nuclear if we are to achieve our 2050 emissions target.”

By 2050, Ireland’s energy is meant to have a net zero carbon output (there would still be some carbon emissions but they would be offset by natural and mechanical carbon capture) but we already know we’ll miss our interim 2020 target and every critique of the Government’s Climate Action Plan says at the current rate of rolling out alternatives to fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal and peat), we won’t hit our 2030 target either.

By BENE’s reckoning, Ireland could have a nuclear reactor up and running by then, with dramatically improved chances of getting on track by 2050.

An anti-nuclear power protest poster for Carnsore Point, Co Wexford, in August 1978.
An anti-nuclear power protest poster for Carnsore Point, Co Wexford, in August 1978.

There is no mention of nuclear in the action plan, however, nor in the report of the special all-party Climate Action Committee that preceded it, nor in the report of the Citizens Assembly that preceded that.

“We wrote to the Citizens Assembly to ask to be allowed to make a presentation and we were refused. Given that nuclear energy is one of the acknowledged best means of reducing emissions, I think it was wrong of them to ignore it completely,” says Duff.

“Then when the joint committee was formed, we asked to be allowed in front of them and we were refused again. The excuse was that they had so much to go through, they wouldn’t have time to hear us.

“But what it tells us is that the Government is quite happy to continue with an inadequate energy policy. It tells us that they haven’t adequately looked at the developments in nuclear energy.

“They appear to be blissfully ignorant of the benefits that new nuclear could provide to Ireland and this will come back to haunt us in years to come.” Duff was not always a nuclear energy evangelist. In fact, he was one of the thousands who attended what was dubbed Ireland’s Woodstock — the three-day festival at Carnsore Point in Co Wexford in August 1978, staged in protest at his future employer’s plans to build a nuclear power plant on the headland.

“I was a student, it was a free gig and it was absolutely brilliant,” he says. “I wasn’t exactly anti-nuclear but I didn’t think the nuclear plan we had for Ireland at that stage was economically viable.

“But then what happened was that there were some fledgling Green Party activists from Europe who encouraged everybody on the Sunday morning to carry a stone down to Carne beach and we would build a ‘cairn on Carne’, as they called it, to commemorate all the people who had died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I’m saying to myself, what has that got to do with nuclear energy?

“I was one of the few people who didn’t carry a stone down. They didn’t seem to know or care that there was a fundamental difference between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. They conflated the two and I think many of the activists still haven’t gotten over that conflation."

The closest nuclear power plant to Ireland is the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant on the Irish Sea in Cumbria, England.
The closest nuclear power plant to Ireland is the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant on the Irish Sea in Cumbria, England.

Tony Lowes, director of Friends of the Irish Environment, accepts that the nuclear question can provoke impassioned responses. “It hits some fundamental terror in people,” he says.

But he says the arguments against nuclear as an energy solution are overwhelming.

“It’s not a renewable fuel for a start — it’s a fossil fuel because you have to mine for uranium — and any efforts made to bring in nuclear energy would be at the expense of actually solving our problems which we have to do through wind and solar.”

Off-shore wind farms are the real answer, Lowes says, both because of the enormous amount of energy available to be harnessed off Ireland’s coasts and because of the growing opposition among local communities to the proliferation of onshore turbines and solar farms.

He is critical of the delays in overhauling the planning and licencing system needed to support offshore. Currently, developers face a mountain of bureaucracy with a multitude of national and local agencies to work through, with sometimes overlapping or duplicated processes.

In late July, the Government finally approved the general scheme of the Marine Planning and Development Management Bill 2019 which promises to clarify and streamline the procedures but, as the official announcement itself pointed out, this replaces the Maritime Area and Foreshore Amendment Bill of 2013.

Six years on and we still have only a general scheme of a bill with a long way to go before legislation is enacted and processes change accordingly.

Meanwhile, investors have a number of large-scale project proposals on hold awaiting legislative clarity.

“We’ve known for a long time that off-shore wind is essential. It’s a no-brainer. The blockages to it are just so reprehensible,” Lowes says.

“We don’t have a very clear picture of how the rules for offshore will work and we haven’t addressed it with anything like the urgency we need to which is why we’re talking about nuclear energy. But I think it would be a really fatal mistake to make nuclear part of the energy mix in the long-term.”

While wind and nuclear appear to be polar opposites, they share a common problem. To function at their best, they both require technologies that are still in development.

Off-shore wind and solar at times produce a surplus of energy. Battery storage facilities — often looking like a cluster of large office cabinets — can be installed in open spaces to store excess power but already plans for some in this country are facing local opposition.

The excess can also be processed to produce hydrogen that could be used for heating and fuelling vehicles which would take the pressure off the electricity supply at times when the sun is down and winds are light.

The idea works at the experimental level but the challenge is to get it working on a large scale and cheaply enough to make it worthwhile. A breakthrough on that front is imminent, so the energy industry says, but the proof is awaited.

The cooling towers at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Shutdown after its 1979 partial meltdown. Picture: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
The cooling towers at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania. Shutdown after its 1979 partial meltdown. Picture: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

It is a similar waiting game with nuclear. A number of advances are promised, one being ‘moltex’ — a nuclear material used in its molten form so eliminating the possibility of meltdown and the disaster that could follow.

It is still at the early stages of development but further along the pathway is the ‘small modular reactor’ (SMR), a compact, cheaper, more flexible and, it is claimed, safer version of the hulking installations we are used to seeing.

Various models are being worked on at the moment with the United States and China both signalling they’ll have the first one up and running by the mid 2020s although history tells us that may be optimistic. Some voices within the industry were promising we’d have garden shed sized reactors a decade ago.

Dr Paul Deane of the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork has been following the race with interest.

“Recently there’s been a lot of talk about small modular reactors. These things promise to be safe, they promise to be affordable and they promise to be efficient but they’ve been promising that for many years and there are no commercial units available yet,” he says.

“We’ve spent a lot of time behind the scenes talking to different experts around the world and there is such a large variation in opinion as to when these will become commercially available. What that tells us is that, while it is very exciting, it is very uncertain.” Deane says, however, that uncertainty should not be a deterrent to debate and he thinks it is time that Ireland started talking about nuclear.

“Unfortunately in Ireland, in a lot of the conversation around nuclear, people presuppose straight away that it’s an argument against renewables — against wind, solar and bioenergy.

“It’s not. My personal opinion is that just because you’re open to the idea of talking about nuclear doesn’t mean that you’re against everything else.

“I think when you look at Ireland’s situation in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, we have to be open to different approaches. Ninety per cent of all our energy in Ireland today comes from fossil fuels.

“The recent climate action plan will reduce our level of dependence on fossil fuels to 70% in 2030 but that’s still a very heavy dependency. “Driven by concerns about climate change, a lot of people are re-examining their opinions about what they are open to. While a lot of people might not like nuclear, they don’t like climate change either.”

Oisin Coghlan, director of the Friends of the Earth Ireland, however, doesn’t believe a debate on nuclear is necessary or justifiable.

“I think it’s a massive distraction,” he says. “You’d have to change the law and even if Friends of the Earth changed our position and said, you know what, we think nuclear is the solution and we’re going to drop everything and campaign for it for the next 10 years, I don’t think it would make the slightest bit of difference.

“We’re the country that took 20 years to join two Luas lines and we can’t get Bus Connect to happen so I just don’t see us getting it together to put a nuclear station on this island in time to lower our carbon emissions.” Coghlan believes nuclear has as much to do with psychology as technology. “Nuclear appeals to engineers and it appeals to politicians who want big solutions and macho solutions,” he says.

“Tony Blair had just gone to war with Iraq [when he announced a new nuclear building programme in the mid-2000s]. He didn’t want to stand up and say, we need to lag every attic and double-glaze every window. He wanted to say, we’re going to go big guns — we’re going nuclear.

“Lagging every attic and double-glazing every window would be far more efficient and far quicker and have none of the hassle but engineers and politicians have been very resistant to this kind of approach.

“They don’t like starting small — putting solar panels on every school and house — because that’s lots of little people doing little things.

“But that’s what makes this a societal journey where we all change together. When every school has solar power, while that won’t be enough on its own, it will mean that maybe the parents are less likely to oppose the solar farm planned for down the road because they start to feel like they’re part of the solution.

“I think nuclear is a red herring that appeals to a certain mindset and I think that mindset is outdated. We need to look at decentralised, renewable electricity that many of us are involved in owning, that many of us are involved in supplying and all of us are involved in supporting.”

Des O’Malley FF TD and minister for trade in 1982. Picture: Donal Sheehan. Oisin Coghlan: ‘I think nuclear is a red herring.’ Paul Deane, UCC. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.
Des O’Malley FF TD and minister for trade in 1982. Picture: Donal Sheehan. Oisin Coghlan: ‘I think nuclear is a red herring.’ Paul Deane, UCC. Picture: Tomas Tyner, UCC.

Red herring or not, one of the contradictions of Irish nuclear policy is that nuclear energy is already swimming through our national electricity grid.

“It’s a bit awkward,” says Paul Deane. “It’s illegal to generate nuclear power here but we import electricity from the UK which is generated from nuclear energy and we have plans to build an electricity cable (the underwater Celtic Interconnector) between Cork and France which will also bring nuclear power here.”

Denis Duff says the law is not insurmountable. He suggests the wording of the ban and its placement within legislation may even have been chosen to ensure it is easily removed.

“It’s just one line in two pieces of legislation,” he says.”One isolated line. It could easily be taken out without any impact on either of those pieces of legislation. My belief is that they were written in such a way that they could be easily withdrawn.” One of the pieces of legislation he refers to is the Electricity Regulation Act 1999. Where it deals with authorisations for electricity generation projects, it states: “An order under this section shall not provide for the use of nuclear fission for the generation of electricity.” The newer Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 meanwhile states simply: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as enabling the authorisation of development consisting of an installation for the generation of electricity by nuclear fission.”

So if the law was to be changed — and to be clear, there is no political party here that currently takes a pro-nuclear stance — what would a nuclear plant in Ireland look like?

An abandoned bus near the location of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, is slowly consumed by time and nature. Picture: Caroline O’Doherty
An abandoned bus near the location of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, is slowly consumed by time and nature. Picture: Caroline O’Doherty

NuScale in the US claims to have the blueprint for the future of nuclear. The Oregan-based company is the frontrunner in the race to build the first SMR, a project that has the backing of the US Department of Energy which is also providing some financial assistance.

Its model produces 200 megawatts of electricity, roughly enough to power 200,000-250,000 homes. Conventional designs have started at 1000 megawatts, economies of scale driving the tendency to go big.

The main components would be manufactured at one of the company’s bases and then transported and assembled on site — a method NuScale says will allow greater flexibility with design and scale and reduce costs.

It is promoted as being particularly suited for small to medium scale production — something that is relevant to a small market such as Ireland.

But where would this site be in Ireland? Denis Duff and BENE, perhaps bravely, suggest Carnesore Point would still make an excellent location — although it is currently home to a modest wind farm built by an ESB subsidiary in 2003.

The other site BENE proposes is the ESB’s Moneypoint power plant. The coal-fired generating station has been on the wane for some time, job losses are imminent and there is a rush to find it another purpose before coal is phased out completely in 2025.

Environmental campaigners believe that the Co Clare plant, with its deep water jetty, would make an ideal construction and maintenance base for the offshore wind industry, but its conversion to nuclear power has been suggested in the past by the ESB itself.

ESB’s official position on nuclear is cautious but pragmatic. In its 2017 report on planning for a low carbon future — a document that reflects its current thinking — it states: “Apart from the legal position, the minimum size of nuclear power plant currently available is over 1,000 MW. This is too large relative to the peak load on the electricity system in Ireland to permit reliable operation.

Radioactive equipment that was used to deal with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Picture: Caroline O’Doherty
Radioactive equipment that was used to deal with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Picture: Caroline O’Doherty

“Therefore nuclear power is not included in the roadmap [to a low carbon future] in Chapter 5 as this is based on current technologies. The expected development of small modular reactors (SMRs) with smaller size and greater flexibility may make nuclear power more feasible in the future. Should this happen, it would be appropriate to reconsider nuclear power as an option.” Duff takes issue with the statement about the minimum size — it is already possible to go smaller than 1000mw — but he takes heart from the general conclusion.

“Many of my friends and former colleagues in ESB would privately agree with me,” he says. “We’re not going to meet our emissions targets for electricity without nuclear energy or carbon capture.

“My belief is that we will need both but at the moment, nuclear is further down the road in terms of providing a solution.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a zero carbon technology because they’re not going to capture all the carbon — maybe 90% of it if the technology becomes available and economical.

“The rest is pumped into an underground cavern where it remains forever and a day — hopefully.

“In the meantime there are already nuclear power plants out there available today that would suit Ireland’s grid if we wanted. Or we could plan to go nuclear - it’ll take us about 10 years but say in five or six years we come to decide what kind of plant to put in, there’s an excellent chance that the small modular reactor will be available at that stage. But we need to do the legwork and start it now.” Apart from changing the law, any serious proposal to go nuclear would involve making a range of policy decisions around the sourcing of nuclear fuel, the disposal of waste (what the industry calls ‘spent fuel’, and the licencing and regulation of operators.

Wicklow and Donegal have uranium deposits but Duff does not believe mining should take place in Ireland. Not only would it be controversial but the relatively small amounts we would need are available from other countries, he says.

Waste management is another tricky subject, particularly given Ireland’s experience of the lackadaisical manner in which Britain dumped some of its nuclear waste in the past. Duff says there are choices here. The volume of waste from new plants is so small, we could fit 80 years worth of it in one secure facility the size of the National Basketball Arena - a venue of 18,000 square feet.

Alternatively, there are transnational agreements that allow smaller countries return waste to the supplying nation for disposal.

Having a regulator with sufficient expertise, powers and clout to oversee a nuclear industry would be vital for public safety and trust. The closest thing we had to that — the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland — was disbanded and its functions subsumed into the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 but presumably it could be reconstituted and beefed up.

That all sounds do-able, but the question that hangs over every discussion of nuclear is — what if something goes wrong?

“I was horrified by Chernobyl,” Duff remembers. “But Chernobyl is so far away from the type of plant we are talking about putting in that it’s like comparing the Hindenburg airship to an Airbus A320.

“Fukushima was designed in the 1950s but still the plant withstood the earthquake. It just wasn’t designed to withstand the 45 foot wall of water that followed. Modern reactors are designed to withstand even those events.” BENE plan to increase their lobbying activities over the coming year. “We’ve done a major study on the technical and financial implications of Ireland adopting small nuclear plans from 2030 on and the results are really encouraging from an emissions point of view and a financial viewpoint. We plan to launch that, hopefully later this year,” Duff says.

A baby is screened at an evacuation centre for leaked radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear facilities, in the city of Fukushima, northeastern Japan, on Thursday March 24, 2011. Picture: AP Photo/Kyodo News
A baby is screened at an evacuation centre for leaked radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear facilities, in the city of Fukushima, northeastern Japan, on Thursday March 24, 2011. Picture: AP Photo/Kyodo News

At UCC, meanwhile, Paul Deane and his colleagues are also working on a report they hope will be ready to publish within the year and will help inform debate on the issue.

“We think about lots of different ways to produce our energy so it’s a natural part of our investigations here and hopefully it will add to the information out there.

“I’m open to conversations about anything that could help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. In terms of nuclear we must be careful about managing our expectations. It’s not something that’s going to be available today or tomorrow.

“But if these technologies do become commercially available, I think it’s certainly a conversation that should be had and hopefully it will be a conversation rather than an argument.

“After that, it’s up to us as a society and as citizens as to whether we want to accept it or not.” For Tony Lowes, however, there is no argument — nuclear is not an answer. “We were ahead of the game in wind energy 10-15 years ago and we got stuck but we can still transform the energy picture if we get moving again,” he says.

“Bringing nuclear into the conversation is just going to slow us down even more and we don’t have any more time to lose.”

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