Saturday 24 March 2018

We really need to talk about the N-word

British Greens this week did a U-turn on nuclear energy. Susan Daly asks why we're not even discussing it here

There was once as much chance of a Green politician opening his arms to nuclear power as there was of Ian Paisley giving Martin McGuinness a bear hug. We have now lived to see both unlikely embraces.

Chris Goodall, a prospective parliamentary candidate for the British Green Party, this week advised that nuclear energy be part of the solution to Britain's energy crisis. His justification for this apparent U-turn is that climate change is now the big bogeyman in environmental terms, and not a potential nuclear accident.

"Nuclear power has substantial drawbacks, but the consequences of not embracing it are likely to be significantly worse," he wrote on Monday.

The runaway train of climate change -- though there are still those who insist that it's a myth -- and the volatile price of oil have put nuclear energy firmly back on the table. Two-thirds of our energy comes from oil -- well above the EU average of 42pc. The cost of power in Ireland is frequently cited as a major turn-off for industries settling here.

Establishing a nuclear plant is also hugely expensive -- even the smaller plants that would suit an Irish context have a price tag of over a billion.

On the other hand, there are the financial penalties involved for not meeting carbon-emission targets as a result of our dependence on 'dirty' power. Ireland looks likely to be at least 10pc over its CO2 limit for next year as set out by Kyoto. Just last week, aviation tycoon Ulick McEvaddy told a business leaders' forum in Dublin that nuclear power was our best chance of meeting our carbon emission targets.

Clearly, we need to talk about nuclear.

Energy Minister Eamon Ryan managed to mention the 'n' word on his appointment in 2007 without turning into a pillar of salt. We need a debate, he said, we need all the scientific facts on the table. He has yet to set a date for such a debate, and calls made by Weekend Review to his press office this week were not returned.

Everyone appears to be calling for a debate... as long as someone else starts it. This is down to the historically sensitive place nuclear power occupies in the Irish psyche. The protests at Carnsore Point in 1978 against a proposed nuclear plant there are still a touchstone for Irish environmentalists. John Gormley himself declared it the spiritual birthplace of the Greens.

The protesters at Carnsore were probably right for their time; safety and policing measures on nuclear plants were embryonic compared to today's advances. And the capacity of a Carnsore plant to produce 3,000MW of power hugely outstripped national demand at the time.

But now, smaller nuclear plants of 600MW and 450MW are commonplace, so the security danger of putting all eggs in one basket is ruled out. At peak winter months, the national grid consumes up to 5,000MW -- and is ever rising. The commitment from the Government to have 40pc of our power from renewables by 2020 is a tall order. ESB chief executive Padraig McManus predicted last October that Ireland may well have no option but to develop nuclear power by 2035.

Yet the spectre of terror still paralyses Irish reaction to nuclear. Sellafield contains the sum of our fears, built in proximity to the Irish Sea and site of the Windscale reactor fire of 1957 which released radioactive contaminants into the air. Our close association to the children of Chernobyl, through the work of campaigners like Adi Roche and Bono's wife Ali Hewson, has kept the effects of radiation poisoning to the fore.

The State's handling of these fears has not been helpful. Although nuclear experts agree that Chernobyl was a singularly badly managed power plant with a string of errors leading to its 1986 disaster, incidents like former junior minister Joe Jacob's presentation of iodine tablets as our only national emergency plan allow Irish people to believe that going nuclear is not an option.

The two-part drama Fallout, screened in 2006 on RTE -- the State broadcaster, with a brief to be of public service, let's not forget -- did nothing to alleviate the hysteria. Depicting a nuclear disaster in England that proceeds to level the east coast of Ireland, it was filmed in a pseudo-documentary fashion, making full use of recognisable RTE news sets to feed into the credibility of the scenario.

It was scaremongering at a cheap level, but it worked, because nuclear issues provoke an emotional response in Ireland first, and a rational one a distant second.

Yet we have two of the world's most prominent environmentalists, James Lovelock -- who was the first to identify CFCs in the atmosphere -- and George Monbiot advocating atomic power as an option that needs to be explored. When Lovelock, one of the founders of Greenpeace, laid his cards on the table as far back as 2004, he said: "We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one-third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all-pervasive carcinogen, oxygen."

Friends of the Earth Ireland director Oisin Coghlan insists that his organisation wouldn't let historical anti-nuclear positions stand in their way if they thought it provided part of the solution to the energy crisis. "But the evidence has not changed as far as we are concerned," he says.

"My feeling is that debating nuclear here would take such a concentration of resources, we would spend the next 15 years talking about it and we won't talk about what we can be doing right now; investing in renewables, sorting out housing and agricultural issues."

He points to Finland where he says that the reinvigoration of their nuclear project saw "investment in renewable energy fall off". On the other side of the coin, it is now the only country in the world with an approved plan to build a secure repository for the waste. One of the big 'cons' of nuclear has always been that there is little that can be done with used radioactive fuel rods.

Denmark was once held up as a model of wind-generated electricity. However, Denmark has found the supply of wind power to be capricious and has had to import energy from Sweden and Germany.

An Irish company, Gaelectric, has been looking at building a facility for storing compressed air in what would be the first bid here to store wind-generated energy. In the meantime, local complaints of aesthetic and noise pollution or on grounds of inefficiency have left many objectors tilting at windmills.

There is the question of how Ireland can square its anti-nuclear stance -- nuclear projects were banned under the Generation Act 1999 -- with the fact that we import energy from existing inter-connectors with Britain. One-fifth of Britain's energy is generated from nuclear sources. A €100m grant has just been approved for a future inter-connector between Ireland and Wales, and there are plans for one to connect Ireland and France, which generates nearly 80pc of its energy from nuclear power.

Mr Ryan has admitted that it is not possible to tell whether the electricity we import via inter-connectors comes from nuclear power or not. Yet he refused two licences to prospect for uranium in Donegal over a year ago, believing it would "not be consistent" for Ireland to export a substance that might be used to generate nuclear power abroad.

So we are happy to take nuclear-generated power from a neighbour, as long as it's not created on our actual doorstep. Mr Ryan, we really need to talk.

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