Thursday 17 January 2019

The debate on Irish nuclear power should be fuelled by pragmatism

A reliable source of electricity that helps cut carbon emissions may be a no-brainer for Britain, but not here

Fair play to Energy, etc Minister Eamon Ryan for putting a lot of people right about electricity. You cannot tell where it has come from -- if indeed it has "come" from anywhere.

I knew of an old lady once who removed the lightbulbs every night in case electricity leaked out of them and added to her ESB bills. I kind of understood her reasoning, but not that of those who fretted that we would be "importing" nuclear-generated electricity through the undersea cables to Great Britain.

One can write a cheque to a nuclear power company, of course, or to Scottish & Southern who have just bought the Irish wind energy company, Airtricity, and who derive so much of their power from hydro and other renewables.

If paying them the money makes one feel better, fine. The nuclear companies can sell the equivalent amount of power to customers elsewhere. Just don't pretend, or imagine, as Minister Ryan said, that electricity itself can be identified, like a salmon sniffing out the water from its own spawning stream.

Such attitudes do not bode well for the serious debate which Mr Ryan, and everyone else, is calling for, as to whether Ireland should install a nuclear plant. This renewed interest was sparked by the UK's decision to build up to 10 new plants. Critically, though, these are intended to replace existing, ageing nuclear power stations.

Mr Ryan missed a chance to make that point, on top of his lesson in particle physics. A country which already has significant nuclear generation is in a bit of a bind when it comes to cutting carbon emissions. If it winds down its nuclear industry, it has to replace all that power on a carbon-free basis, before it even begins to reduce emissions. It looks an impossible task.

For a country with no nuclear power, the debate is different. Building just one station in Ireland could reduce carbon emissions from the electricity industry by a fifth, especially if it replaced the Moneypoint coal plant. But Ireland urgently needs extra power stations as well. Electricity demand grew by over 6 per cent in 2006, and associated emissions by 1.8 per cent. So are two nuclear stations needed to make a significant inroad on greenhouse gases?

I notice that Eirgrid, which runs the power network, is not joining the debate. Its elaborate analysis this week of the costs of renewable energy in future electricity generation did not include a nuclear option. But why should it, as a state company, when Government policy explicitly forbids any nuclear station?

As the Labour Party spokesperson, Liz McManus, pointed out, it seems a funny position for Minister Ryan to launch a serious debate from. She doubted that he wants one at all.

At least the Labour Party knows what it wants, which is more undersea cable to import electricity. So does Eirgrid, encouraged no doubt by the belief that it would own the inter-connectors. But that approach, as last week's learned analysis for the annual meeting of the world's bigwigs on the ski slopes of Davos pointed out, does nothing for energy security.

On Thursday, news broke that the Russian gas giant Gazprom plans to enter the Irish market. It is always good to have any new competitors, but the problem is that the EU will soon be entirely dependent on Russian gas, and is hugely dependent on gas for electricity. The inter-connectors to Ireland might not always switch on.

Nuclear plants do not entirely guarantee supply either. They need enriched uranium, and only six countries produce that dangerous stuff. But two of them are Britain and France, which may give more security than gas from the east.

The Greeks had to turn down the lights this week, because of some trouble involving Iran, Turkmenistan and a pipeline.

Security and carbon emissions seem to be the two main arguments for nuclear power, given its uncertain costs and ever present hazards. If I ever got to that debate, I would whisper about whether Ireland should really take the emissions argument all that seriously.

You have to be careful about saying that sort of thing in public, of course. But we cannot influence the global climate, and the emissions targets are ridiculous: neither a nuclear station nor a serious wind-driven network can be ready before 2020.

That's assuming we started now. Given the fuss over the Corrib gas field, which is vital to the country's energy security, it could be 2020 before a nuclear station started construction, and who could possibly stand the rows in the meantime?

Better, surely, to do all we can on conservation, invest generous amounts in renewable energy, but make sure there is money left over to deal with the consequences of global warming. That is the most likely outcome, and one entirely beyond our control.

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