Nuclear expansion - One-sided debate is not helpful

The British government’s decision to press ahead with a vigorous expansion of nuclear power is clearly of more than a passing interest on this side of the Irish Sea.

Nuclear expansion - One-sided debate is not helpful

Considering the straining of relations that occurred with the operation of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing facility in Cumbria, it is no surprise that there would be concerns raised here about plans to build eight nuclear plants in all before 2025.

In its initial phase, two nuclear reactors will be built 240km from the Irish coast. The British government has given approval for the £14bn (€16.5bn) Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, to be built by the French energy company EDF.

The UN is also said to be taking an interest in the plant’s development in response to complaints by Green parties in several European countries that the UK has failed to consult adequately.

However, the UN is unlikely to take any action, considering it refused a request by Ireland for the closure of Sellafield, which is closer to the Irish coast than the proposed Somerset plant. Successive Irish governments have asked the British to close Sellafield over concerns about pollution of the Irish Sea and fears that an accident could harm Ireland’s environment.

Predictably, heritage group An Taisce has raised objections to the Somerset plant and is launching a court challenge in London in December. It is questioning whether the development complies with both the EU’s environmental impact assessment directive and the UK’s regulations on trans-boundary impacts and consultation.

But before we get too worked up about the plans, perhaps we should consider a number of issues.

Firstly, a report this summer by the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland found that even in the worst accident scenario, health effects on people living in this country would be limited.

The study, commissioned by Environment Minister Phil Hogan, found the routine operation of the proposed plants would have no measurable radiological impact in Ireland. It also found that a severe radiation leak into the Irish Sea equivalent to the Fukushima accident in Japan would lead to a radiation dose that would be less than the annual radiation dose limit for the public.

Secondly, an extensive study by Nasa this year found that the operation of nuclear plants worldwide has, in fact, saved lives. Using nuclear power in place of fossil-fuel energy sources, such as coal, prevented some 1.8 million air pollution-related deaths globally and could save millions of more lives in coming decades.

Nuclear power is far better for the environment that the production of coal or natural gas, scientists said. They calculated that if coal or natural gas power had replaced nuclear energy from 1971 to 2009, the equivalent of an additional 64 gigatons of carbon would have reached the atmosphere. Switching from nuclear to coal or natural gas power would lead to the release of 80 to 240 gigatons of additional carbon by 2050.

Thirdly, with the completion in August of the Ireland to Wales underwater electricity inter-connector, we may already be using nuclear power here.

A more enlightened and less hysterical approach to the subject is badly wanting, with a mature debate on the benefits — and otherwise — of building a nuclear power plant on Irish soil.

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