We cannot rule out use of nuclear power - minister
NUCLEAR power needs to be looked at as part of a debate about Ireland's future energy needs, Minister Alex White has said.
The Energy Minister believes that the nuclear option must be explored as one way of reducing our reliance on imported oil and gas.
"I have the view that if you're having a serious debate about energy, you cannot exclude nuclear," Mr White told the Irish Independent.
His comments are likely to prove controversial. Substantial health fears still surround nuclear power and its use for the generation of electricity is illegal in Ireland.
"You can see people's historic concerns and understand them, and I would have shared them, but you have to look at the other side of the table.
"We have a dependence on damaging carbon-based energy sources which are effectively destroying the planet. You cannot preside over a full debate by excluding anything," he said.
The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is currently working on a long-term energy strategy which will set out the role for conventional power generation from oil and gas; renewables including wind and energy; along with nuclear and other energy sources.
The minister also said that politicians and 'official' Ireland have not performed well in the midst of a "crisis" about our future energy needs.
He admitted that many people living in the shadow of pylons and wind turbines feel they are "victims of a policy" which was not of their making, and there is a need to work more closely with local communities.
Mr White's comments on the potential use of nuclear power comes after a Green Paper on Energy last May noted that it would be "technically possible" to construct a small nuclear reactor to replace the coal-burning Moneypoint plant in Co Clare, which is expected to close in 2025.
"We're not at any stage near having a proposal for a nuclear power plant, but we may also be too small (a country for nuclear power)," the minister said.
However, he said that real engagement was needed in order to chart a sustainable future for our energy needs.
Mr White said there was a "disconnect" between communities directly affected by projects, and the wider need to develop a secure energy supply.
A report from the National Economic And Social Council (NESC), which advises the Taoiseach, recently noted that engagement with affected communities and getting their "buy-in" was crucial to developing an indigenous supply.
The minister said that national grid operator EirGrid, which is planning three large-scale upgrades of the grid, had recognised the failings of their public consultation process and were addressing issues.
"We have not performed well at political or official level," Mr White said. "I think EirGrid recognise significant gaps and failings in their engagement with citizens and communities and that has to be addressed.
"The proposition that there's a disconnect is a fair one.
"One thing I plan to do in 2015 in preparing the white paper is to ensure that it does take account of community interests and the energy citizen, because somebody who sees pylons will feel something of a victim of a policy that they have played no part in devising."
Mr White said 2014 has been marked by a "crisis of public discourse".
On the one hand, there was a need to set out a long-term energy strategy. On the other, there was a need to take into account the concerns of communities which will live with pylons and wind turbines.
"I would like to see what's best practice abroad. There will still need to be an overarching energy policy, and there will still need to be grid and energy infrastructure. We will still have a job to do persuading people of the need.
"This is a sensitive and difficult area of public policy and there will be conflicts. We have to get better at resolving conflicts. There will have to be give and take. I think our political system is highly democratic, but we just seem to have a lamentably poor level of debate."
Mr White said the Government held no brief for individual operators and he was critical of some wind generators which believe that community gain involves sponsoring a local team or providing some funding for an initiative. "That is not sufficient, nowhere near what we believe is necessary. That has been, to an extent, an attitude taken by some elements in the private sector, anxious to proceed with their project, believing in the value of it and profitability of it, and perhaps failing to see that it's not good enough to assert something is important and necessary."
Tax breaks and other incentives could be introduced to encourage local communities to invest in specific schemes, he said.
Community energy projects are already in place in Tipperary and the Aran Islands, and there is scope for more, he added.