The embryonic Irish nuclear industry met its demise on the Wexford shoreline over the political furore surrounding attempts made by the Irish government to construct a total of four nuclear power plants to meet the country’s burgeoning energy needs. A brainchild of the market leaning Desmond O’Malley and spurred on by the need for Ireland to achieve some degree of energy self-reliance in the wake of the 1973 Energy Crisis. The project initially found favour as far afield as with the Irish Communist Party who favoured the nuclear option with perhaps an eye towards their Soviet comrades.

Regardless, the Carnsore Point project infamously floundered becoming a cultural and political lightning rod for social discontent in 1970s Ireland.There were additional logistical concerns which all but caused the plans to gradually grind to a halt.

In light of this political debacle as well as the energy situation being eased by access to offshore gas fields and cheap imports the project was mothballed quietly by the early 1980s, never to be taken seriously again. The final nail in the coffin came in 1999 with the enactment of legislation that prohibited the production, though not the consumption of, nuclear energy.

In lieu of pursuing a nuclear strategy the supposedly green-conscious Irish state opted for the creation of mainly coal powered stations such as Moneypoint averaging 4.4 million tons of C02 emitted per annum alone not to mention considerable NO2 emissions is a fact that is often lost on environmentalists.

Whilst Ireland has enjoyed a reasonable degree of energy security since the 1970s, despite prices  being 13% higher than EU norm, there is a potential need to cultivate a nuclear sector as part of a broad and diversified energy policy. This need is further exacerbated not merely by the geopolitical fault lines emerging post-Brexit and the understanding that Ireland occupies a precarious position between the EU and Anglosphere blocs but also the inevitable closure of the coal powered Moneypoint power station in 2025. And also not to mention the looming threat of fines from the European Commission regarding emissions.

While it is true that Ireland has seen remarkable improvements in the harnessing of renewable energy and a gradual conversion to the more environmentally friendly gas, current arrangements shall be jeopardised on account of moves from Brussels. These moves are in regard to emission fines, the impact of Brexit on the Single Energy Market the pernicious effects of data centres on the energy grid, not to mention the potential volatility of global energy.

The Current Situation

As of the most recent figures, Ireland imports a total of 69% of its energy needs resulting in a trade imbalance of €3.4 billion with energy use increasing in near tandem with economic growth at 3.7%.

The Irish energy market is dominated through either imports as well as indigenous carbon intensive fuel sources such as coal peat and gas. In addition to this renewable energy has seen remarkable growth with up to 25.3% of electricity produced with wind power making up the bulk of this at 21.1% a figure that is set to increase with the opening of future wind farms like the 95MW wind-farm in Meenadreen County Donegal expected to power 50,000 households.

Despite this Ireland is not expected to meet the 20% reduction in emissions as laid out in EU 2020 energy commitments potentially incurring fine of up to €610 million in 2020 and annual fines in the region of €75 million per annum. Ireland’s commitment to wind power has indeed incurred to wrath of residents groups objecting to the apparently unsightly nature of wind-farms and the effect they have on farmers. In addition to this the Irish Academy of Engineering in 2011 cited wind power as being overly expensive relative to alternatives and not capable of meeting emission targets.

Image: SEAI (Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland)

Another ominous and overlooked development is the effect data centres are having on the energy grid behind 75% of the growth in energy demand and on the path to making up 15% of total energy demand by the mid-2020s. Almost to add salt to the wounds these energy intensive sites employ an average of 30 employees each owned by corporations such as Google famed for their tax avoidance measures within the Irish state perhaps embodying the naïve sycophancy shown to foreign corporations by the Irish state.

Relative to other European nations Ireland relies heavily on oil and natural gas imports though the Corrib gas fields recently coming into operation in 2016 have tempered the reliance on natural gas imports temporarily with the store of gas is expected to last a mere 15-20 years with production peaking within 5. Another looming threat to energy security comes with the looming closure of the coal powered Moneypoint 915MW site as it comes to the end of its 30 year life cycle chalked in for 2025.

The confluence of events that may face us will inevitably force us to reconsider our current path regarding energy security or pay a hefty price manifesting itself in emission fines and loss of economic growth. Ireland mainly though good fortune and global circumstances has avoided making hard long term decisions regarding nuclear energy however the fact that our current energy model assumes a good deal of political cohesion at a global and European level as well as factors listed above may force a future Irish government to take bold action regarding the issue of nuclear power,

The Nuclear Option

Currently nuclear makes up 26.5% of the electricity generated within the EU with 14 out of 27 EU nations having active nuclear reactors. Finland a nation of similar size to Ireland has 28% of its energy demand satisfied through four reactors with further developments expected to double this figure to 60% by 2025. Despite a degree of disengagement from nuclear power in countries such as Germany, it is still seen favourably by non-western governments such as China, where the world’s first Generation IV reactors are coming online this year. These reactors are touted as being apparently immune to nuclear meltdowns due to their advanced cooling systems. It would appear that despite largely politically motivated attempts to move the Continent towards renewable energy as well as vocal condemnations of nuclear energy from well-oiled advocacy groups the world is evidently moving on towards a nuclear future.

BENE or Better Environment with Nuclear Energy is an Irish nuclear advocacy group attempting to rectify perceived misunderstandings about nuclear energy among the Irish public and policymakers advocating for the inclusion of nuclear as part of a broad based energy strategy.

Some of the suggestions on offer by the group include the roll out of a series Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) averaging 150MW on sites less than 15 acres each to bride the demand in energy production. In the eyes of Denis Duff from BENE Ireland nuclear provides a welcome opportunity to decarbonise the Irish energy market with the underlying motivations for the initial case for nuclear energy in Ireland remaining unchanged. In his eyes a potential vision for a nuclear Ireland could include the roll out of six 150MW reactors with capital costs akin to the €2.5 billion invested into the developing the Corrib gas fields. For Duff any fears about nuclear energy are misplaced as well as concerns regarding the long term availability of uranium and the storage of nuclear waste over the quantities and storage facilities involved. In a 2017 submission to the Citizen Assembly the group outlined a plan to remove prohibitions on nuclear energy as well as to seek out nuclear power as a low carbon alternative to the current strategy.

Quantifying Irish opinion towards nuclear power is a hard task with few hard facts available in the immediate wake of the Fukushima incident. In 2011 30% of the Irish public viewed nuclear energy favourably, though a 2016 Journal.ie online poll with a sample of 14,000 placed the percentage wanting nuclear power at 51%.

Objections

Any talk of nuclear energy not just in Ireland but the world over is haunted by the irradiated spectres of Chernobyl and Fukushima not to mention closer to home in Sellafield and Cumberland. While proponents of nuclear energy may attempt to explain these disasters by stating that Soviet era rust buckets shall not be comparable to anything built in the future, or that Ireland does not lie near an earthquake zone. However Irish people have every reason to be sceptical of a state that has floundered in almost every issue it touches, ranging from the health care system to Irish water, and it may potentially imperil the population with the maintenance of nuclear power stations even if it is to be privately managed.

Critics of nuclear energy point to the potential cost of nuclear reactors and possibility of the Irish taxpayer being left with a heavily subsidised nuclear industry with costly overruns and structural flaws being well documented at sites such as a Flamanville France.

The long term storage of nuclear waste is another perennial caveat for a budding nuclear industry though in the minds of advocates this can be handled through standard storage procedures of near or deep surface disposal with the potential of harnessing nuclear waste as a form of energy potentially becoming an option.

The potential 15 year time period taken for construction is another gripe that campaigners like Friends of the Earth Ireland have with nuclear seeing preferring seeing this as a hindrance to the transition to a low carbon energy system.  

Image: Martyn Turner 1978

What’s next?

An issue of paramount importance such as this ought not to be a partisan issue but rather one of long term policy making informed by scientific opinion. The fact is the current strategy of decarbonisation through reliance on mainly wind energy shall be costly and potentially unviable in years to come with the spectre of a disruption to Ireland’s increasingly diversified energy imports remaining in the background. Ireland already endures many of the risks associated with nuclear power with the proximity of reactors in Britain with few of the benefits.

Whilst Ireland has benefited from the emergence out of De Valera era’s autarky and better economic engagement with the wider world, the necessity to achieve some degree of national self-reliance in areas such as energy is still there. The notoriously grim economic fortunes of the early Irish Free State were augmented by the Shannon hydroelectric scheme at Ardnacrusha. This plant paved the way for the gradual electrification of the country and there is no reason why Ireland cannot also enjoy cheap and reliable nuclear energy as other countries if the project were to be handled responsibly.

Even if Ireland’s leaders have illusions of grandeur about being at the centre of the world, we can very well become an isolated economic backwater overnight under the wrong conditions. Our post-Famine history reveals this to us, as evidenced by the wild boom and bust economic cycles, a national tendency towards emigration and capital flight. Any attempt towards decoupling Ireland from the much bemoaned “globalism” shall require access to an abundant source of energy of which nuclear power could very well play a central role.