Irish Energy Policy: Reason v Emotion
‘Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. 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’…..’By all means, let us use the small input from renewables sensibly, but only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy.’
These strong statements are made by James Lovelock, Britain’s premier environmental scientist and a founder of Greenpeace. It is echoed by Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and supported by a range of professional and scientific bodies of high standing that have studied the facts. An unlikely alliance has emerged between the nuclear industry and many environmentalists. Finland has now a new nuclear reactor under construction. The decision was driven primarily by environmental considerations and the facts.
These facts are quite unambiguous. Nuclear reactors do not emit carbon gasses and so do not contribute to global warming. Compared to other means of energy production nuclear power is safe. Death statistics reveal that energy production by hydroelectric and coal are the most dangerous, gas is safer, but nuclear is the safest of all.
Coal is one of the most lethal energy sources. Apart from its impact on global warming large numbers of people die mining coal or subsequently from black-lung disease. Last year some 6000 died mining coal in China: five for each million tons of coal extracted.
While we should have little worry about the stability of Irish dams, the records show that hydroelectric is the most dangerous form of electrical generation. Some 200 major hydroelectric dams have failed, killing 8000 people. But few recall these: the 1959 French Malpasset dam accident killed 421. In the Italian Vaiont dam accident of 1963, 30 million cubic meters of water swept down the Alpine valley. The villages of Longarone, Pirago, Villanova and Rivalta were wiped out, killing 2600. Two thousand died when the Indian Machhu dam failed in 1979. The litany of forgotten hydroelectric accidents goes on.
Yet few will be unaware of the word’s two major nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Neither was caused by a nuclear explosion. In both cases the problem was caused by rupture of the nuclear reactor containment vessel as a result of steam pressure.
No death nor injured occurred during the Three Mile Island accident.
The one at Chernobyl was a radically different matter. The reactor design was gravely defective and the Soviets ignored public safety by omitting the enclosures provided in all western reactors to prevent radiation leaking into the atmosphere. Typically a western reactor is sealed in a 4 to 8 inch thick high-tensile steel pressure vessel. About this is an additional four-foot-thick leaded-concrete enclosure. These, together with the radioactive coolant systems, are then enclosed in a further one to two-inch thick steel containment vessel, which in turn is enclosed in a three foot thick shield building.
The Chernobyl reactor lacked these vital layers of containment structures. As a result when steam pressure caused the reactor vessel to rupture the radioactive material that rushed outwards escaped immediately into the atmosphere. The graphite moderator went on fire, burned for nine days and the radioactive smoke particles were carried by the wind over large areas of the Soviet Union and Europe. The area within 30 km of the reactor was seriously contaminated. If Chernobyl were enclosed in the same way as Three Mile Island this would not have happened.
Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated and their lives were drastically disrupted. While the large majority of those evacuated received only minor radiation doses, less than that of a chest x-ray, this was not made know to them for two years. The foreboding that arose from wild media reports of 10,000 to as many as 100,000 deaths, combined with a lack of information about individual health prospects, inflicted serious psychological scars. This sense of doom and uncertainty was finally brought to a conclusion only recently when the World Health Organisation, together with 7 other United Nations Agencies and some 100 leading scientists, established the true facts related to the Chernobyl accident.
The UN report was published last year. While it shows that the accident was a human tragedy and has caused major disruption to the normal life of the region it also made it clear that the effects on health and environment were significantly less severe than initially predicted. Contrary to reports of thousands of deaths the report established that a total of 56 people died from the results of nuclear radiation since the accident in 1986. Forty seven of these were emergency workers who fought the fire at the nuclear plant during the first day while radiation levels were at a peak. Most of their deaths took place within the following four months. Some 4000 subsequently developed thyroid cancer. But the survival rate was over 99 percent and only nine of these have died as a result of radiation. The report, despite previous forecasts, found that there was no observed rise in the incidence of cancer amongst the general population, nor was there evidence of decrease in fertility or increase in birth defects due to radiation. If the Chernobyl incident never occurred some hundred thousand people in the area studied could be expected to die of cancer in the normal course of events. The UN team estimate that it is possible that some 4 percent of these deaths could eventually be attributed to the Chernobyl accident.
The UN report finds that the most significant damage was psychological, and the assistance programmes established in the region in the wake of the accident have fostered an unhelpful culture of dependency creating a major barrier to the region’s recovery.
Ireland’s attitude towards nuclear energy fluctuates over the years and is much influenced by international events.
In 1968 the ESB announced plans for a 650 megawatt nuclear plant at Carnsore Point, lodged a planning application for 4 nuclear reactors with Wexford County Council in 1974 and contracted with Urenco for the supply of enriched Uranium. Following the oil shock of 1973 the government’s commitment to nuclear energy strengthened and the energy minister Des O’Malley made it clear at the 1978 Fine Fail Ard Fheis that the ‘Flat Earth Society’ was not going to determine Ireland’s future energy policy. However the Three Mile Island accident, the Kinsale gas find, combined with Des O’Malley’s expulsion from the party did: plans for building a nuclear power station were dropped.
Others moved ahead with their plans: today there are a total of 439 nuclear reactors in operation in 31 different countries. The French nuclear programme has been the most successful. Seventy-seven percent of France’s electricity is generated by its 58 nuclear reactors. As oil prices rise France’s energy-costs remain stable; providing the country with an important competitive advantage. European energy shortages and spiralling oil prices have put France in a strong position to export nuclear-generated electricity and nuclear reactors. Last year it exported €3 billion worth to electricity mostly to Germany. Areva, the world’s largest nuclear supplier, is convinced of a nuclear revival: it is about to hire an extra 1000 engineers.
Despite the findings of both an OECD investigation and an Irish government task force, showing that there are not major public health risks associated with nuclear activities in Cumbria, Sellafield remains a contentious issue between Dublin and London. As a result of inflamed public concern and the resultant sticky political situation it is now difficult for Irish policy-makers to address the twin challenges of escalating oil prices and global warming as other countries are doing. But an important start has been made: a recent report of Forfas states: ‘although not economically feasible in the short to medium term…Ireland should consider the possibility of developing nuclear energy as a more long-term solution’.
In the short term Ireland must reduce its dependence on imported oil and gas and diversify. Bringing ashore the gas found off the Mayo coast is an immediate priority, and, while wind energy is not competitive without subsidy, it is wise to encourage investment in renewable energy sources and Sustainable Energy Ireland has recently announced helpful incentives. Because of our isolated island location, Ireland has weak electrical interconnection to the European grid. As a result our system can only cope with a modest proportion of unreliable energy sources such as wind. The planned 500-megawatt electrical inter-connector across the Irish Sea to the UK grid is an important initiative and offers the possibility of increasing wind capacity. When the wind is not blowing Ireland’s energy shortfall can be made up by energy imported from the UK through an inter-connector. The fact that some of it may be generated by the two new reactors proposed for Sellafield provides some balance to the proposition,
In time spiralling oil costs and loss of competitiveness, combined with global-warming concerns, will see a change in Irish attitudes. Then, as the population and the media become more aware of the facts Ireland is more likely to follow Finland’s lead and build its first cluster of nuclear power plants.