Burning nuclear issue must be debated

One way or another, the decision of the European Commission to back the building of a nuclear power plant in Somerset in southwest England, just 150 miles from the Irish coast, closer than Dublin is to Cork, will rekindle debate on the burning question of whether or not Ireland should go nuclear. Despite Government assurances that the new plant will not pose any danger to this country, opposition to the project is already growing among those who fear it will pave the way for more atomic plants across Europe.

The importance of having informed debate on the possibility of Ireland some day opting for a nuclear plant can’t be overstated. It is vital for the public to tease out the likely impact on such key issues as public health and safety, the economy, and the environment, but most of all it goes to the heart of how we view our children’s future.

Despite the government of the day calling for debate on nuclear power six years ago, Ireland lacks a national energy policy worthy of the name. Besides a 1999 regulation prohibiting electricity production by nuclear fission within the Republic, our policy consists of a reliance on power generation from imported coal and North Sea gas. In addition, electricity from the UK comes through an interconnection link under the Irish Sea. Ironically, that includes an unknown slice of nuclear power.

Unfortunately, Ireland’s dream of selling Britain wind power from an army of windmills in the midlands will definitely be scuttled for the foreseeable future by the decision to back the Somerset project. Not surprisingly, officialdom’s token support for wave power experiments on the west coast has yet to produce results.

Until now, the Irish debate on nuclear power has mainly been informed by the storm over a proposed plant at Carnsore Point on the Wexford coast in the late ’60s, a controversy that was fuelled by well-founded safety concerns about the appalling operation of Britain’s nuclear plant at Sellafield since a fire broke out there in 1957.

Opinion has also been deeply influenced by the Chernobyl disaster and more recently by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan

Britain has been lobbying hard to secure EU backing for France to build the new plant before 2020 to make up the energy shortfall as old reactors are shut down. That the commission was forced to vote on the financing and tax implications, and presumably the environmental threat of nuclear power, illustrates the divisions in Europe on this vexed question. Suspicion that it was basically a political decision driven by the pro-nuclear lobby means it will now face opposition in the European Court .

With the Fine Gael-Labour coalition plans for a major wind power array here firmly on indefinite hold, and while Ireland can still afford to buy an increasing share of its electricity demand from Britain and beyond, the ban on building a nuclear plant in the Republic looks likely to stay in place. That should not, however, rule out honest and open debate on both the good and bad sides of atomic power.


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