The Nuclear Energy Option

Dr. Edward Walsh, founding president of the University of Limerick and former director of an energy research laboratory in the US, looks at Ireland’s energy position

Russia’s decision last Christmas to teach the Ukraine a lesson, by attempting to cut off its gas supply and bring the country to its knees, highlights Ireland’s vulnerability. Ninety percent of Ireland’s energy requirements are imported and gas, upon which we are increasingly dependent, flows from a single source in Scotland. In an emergency Ireland has only a two-day supply. Being at the western extremity of Europe’s gas grid is an unenviable location.

Unlike other EU countries that import only half their energy needs Ireland imports 90 percent.  As a result, overall inflation in Ireland rose by 3.9 percent in May, driven primarily by a 14 percent rise in energy prices. Dependence on imported fossil fuel continues to erode Ireland’s competitive position.

With this backdrop the recently published report of a Joint Oireachtas Committee is timely and welcome. It notes Ireland’s weak position and ‘piecemeal approach’ to energy policy. It makes 38 constructive recommendations.

The report sensibly recommends that Ireland diversify its energy sources and increase use of renewables. In particular it urges a number of initiatives to reduce the precarious position of our gas supply.  Bringing ashore Corrib gas is a priority. Using depleted gas wells for storage to provide a three-month gas reserve, and constructing an additional international gas pipeline would all improve security of supply.

Proceeding with an electrical interconnector across the Irish Sea to Britain would permit the import or export of 500 MW of electricity. All other EU member states have superior security of supply because of strong electrical interconnections to neighbouring countries.  Being able to import energy through interconnectors, when the wind is not blowing, would permit Ireland to install more wind capacity.

The disturbing reality is that Ireland’s energy infrastructure is in bad shape. The 2005 World Competitiveness Report ranked Ireland in 46th place, ahead of Romania, but behind Turkey, Poland and Slovenia: not a good position when attempting to retain and compete for high-tech investment. Unlike most European countries Ireland has no nuclear power supply to rely on when oil and gas becomes scarce. The French, with 58 nuclear reactors, are insulated from spiralling prices and as a result have amongst the lowest energy costs in Europe. Because nuclear reactors emit no greenhouse gasses, the French have little difficulty or additional costs in meeting their Kyoto obligations.  They are now moving to build new nuclear reactors to meet their own energy needs while in addition generating major export revenues. For example last year France exported over €3 billion worth of nuclear generated electricity.

Britain is reactivating its nuclear programmes and the community about Sellafield is campaigning to have two of the proposed new nuclear reactors built there. The Finns, with a population similar to Ireland, after a thorough debate, decided to proceed on environmental, cost and security grounds with their fifth nuclear reactor which is now under construction. Similar concerns about security of supply, cost and global warming are now leading governments across the globe to revise their energy policy. Construction of a total of 24 new nuclear power plants has recently commenced and an additional 113 are planned.

Ireland could have been in as fortunate a position as France had it implemented its nuclear plans of 1968. After the 1970s oil shock the government moved with determination to introduce nuclear power. The ESB lodged a planning application with Wexford County Council in 1974 for four 650 MW nuclear reactors. Exploratory drilling for uranium commenced in Donegal and Wicklow and an order was placed with Urenco for uranium fuel. Public opposition grew, as currently against incinerators, but the minister of the day Des O’Malley held firm and called for a rational debate at the Fianna Fail Ard Feis of 1977, urging that Ireland’s energy policies not be dictated by the Flat Earth Society.  After O’Malley’s resignation from the party George Colley shelved the project.  In 1986 Dick Spring found it opportune to raise the Sellafield issue and since then it has proven to be a popular all-party political football. Despite the fact that both the Paris-Oslo Commission of the OECD and an Irish Government Task Force both thoroughly examined the Sellafield threat, and published reports that provided little justification for public concern, the campaign against Sellafield continues.

Against this backdrop it is difficult for Irish policy makers and political leaders to emulate their counterparts in other countries who are now having an informed debate and planning new nuclear power initiatives.  The Greens in many countries have reversed their position on nuclear power. One of the founders of Greenpeace and one of the most respected international environmental scientists Prof James Lovelock states

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 sentiments are reinforced by Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and supported by a range of international professional and scientific bodies of high standing that have studied the facts.

Given the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear power accidents it may be difficult for the public at large to accept that nuclear energy has proven to be so safe. But the facts are there to support the assertion.

No death nor injured occurred during the US Three Mile Island accident.

The one at Chernobyl was radically different. The Soviets ignored public safety by omitting the enclosures provided about all western reactors to prevent radiation leaking into the atmosphere in the event of an accident. 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.  If Chernobyl were enclosed in the same way as Three Mile Island this could not have happened.

Hundreds of thousands of people about Chernobyl 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 resulted in 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 media rumours of thousands of deaths the report established that a total of 56 people died from the results of nuclear radiation in the 20 years since the accident. 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 nuclear reactors never existed at Chernobyl 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.

All energy sources have risk associated with them. Death statistics reveal that energy production by hydroelectric and coal are in fact 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 alone.

While we should have little worry about the stability of Irish dams, records show that hydroelectric is the most dangerous form of electrical generation. Some 200 hydroelectric dams have failed, killing 8000 people.  But few recall these: the 1959 French Malpasset dam accident killed 421.  The Italian Vaiont dam accident of 1963 wiped out the villages of Longarone, Pirago, Villanova and Rivalta, killing 2600.  Two thousand died when the Indian Machhu dam failed in 1979.  The litany of forgotten hydroelectric accidents goes on.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee urges Ireland to diversify its energy sources, look at all the options and ‘considers it imperative that there should be informed debate on nuclear generated electricity’, reiterating what Minister Des O’Malley called for almost thirty years ago at the 1977 Fianna Fail Ard Feis.

New nuclear technology reduces spent fuel storage problems and offers the prospect of small-scale modular nuclear reactors. Of particular interest to Ireland are the 110 MW modular helium-cooled pebble-bed reactors being designed by the German, US and British consortium in partnership with the South African Government.

Uninformed Hollywood-style scaremongering of the past decades needs to be replaced by informed debate if Ireland is to put in place a coherent and rational energy policy that will provide for future needs and safeguard its competitive position.

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