Irish Energy Policy, MacGill Summer School

Irish Energy Policy: Reason v Emotion                                   

Edward M Walsh

MacGill Summer School & Arts Week

Glenties, Co Donegal

17 July 2007

‘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.’[1]

These statements are made by James Lovelock, Britain’s premier environmental scientist and a founder of Greenpeace. They are echoed by Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government[2] and 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 an increasing number of environmentalists.

Bruno Comby the French environmentalist and President of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy states:

When you look at the fundamental facts, nuclear energy is the only energy which is available in large quantities and is able to deliver the energy which our society needs in a clean manner. In fact it is the only way to do that.[3]

Looking at the fundamental facts has not been an activity in which we in Ireland have much indulged, and the outgoing Minister with the energy portfolio, Noel Dempsey, TD, had reason to comment near the end of his term

The reality of our opposition to nuclear energy is that it is an Irish problem – an emotional problem rather than a rational one.[4]

Our new Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD has got off to a constructive start and has clearly opted for the rational approach. He is quoted as saying that the crises caused by climate change and the impending decline in world oil supplies means that “we have to look at everything” in terms of energy supplies, and  “I’ve no objection to a debate. I was encouraging one for the last number of years because we do need to be well informed.” [5]

Taking on Ireland’s energy portfolio is no simple challenge.  Ireland has a problem. Its energy infrastructure is near the bottom of the IMD world competitiveness rankings, at 46th[6]. While ahead of Romania and Indonesia, Ireland is behind places like Turkey and Poland.  Ireland and Italy, two countries without nuclear power, have the highest electricity costs in the EU. Ireland’s high energy costs have been mentioned as reasons for the closure or deferral of plants such as Procter and Gamble in Nenagh and the €100 million Coca Cola plant in Wexford.  Even at the high end of the spectrum enterprise such as Google and Intel are sensitive to energy costs.

The Finns as usual are ahead of the game. They have had a full energy debate and are now forging ahead with the construction of a new nuclear reactor. The decision was driven primarily by economic[7], 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.[8] 

Coal is one of the most lethal energy sources.  In addition to its serious impact on global warming large numbers of people die while 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.[9]

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 some 8000 people.  But few recall these: the 1959 French Malpasset[10] dam accident killed 421.  In the Italian Vaiont[11] 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 steam pressure damaging the nuclear reactor vessel. No death nor injured occurred during the Three Mile Island accident.

The one at Chernobyl[12] 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 leakage. 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.[13]

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 the Chernobyl reactor 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.[14] 

While the UN report highlights a human tragedy that 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 nuclear reactors were never built 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.

More recently an evaluation of risks by scientists at Britain’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology[15] concludes that for the emergency workers and those living near Chernobyl (other than the some 200 fire-fighters and helicopter crew) the increased risk of premature death is around 1 percent: approximately the same as that of dying of diseases caused by inhaling other people’s tobacco smoke or by pollution in major cities. Indeed Smith and Beresford conclude that “Populations still living unofficially in the abandoned lands around Chernobyl may actually have a lower health risk from radiation than they would have if they were exposed to the air pollution health risk in a large city such as nearby Kiev.”

A European Environmental Agency report considers environmental risks and estimates that 370,000 European die prematurely due to air pollution caused by transport. The naturally occurring radioactive gas radon is estimated to cause some 200 Irish deaths each year from lung cancer. Yet, although there are some 400 nuclear power reactors in operation, there is no record of any civilian anywhere in the world being killed by radiation from a nuclear power plant in the past 20 years.[16]

There are 103 nuclear power plants in operating in the US and during the 30-year period since most of them were constructed there is not a single civilian nuclear radiation fatality associated with these plants.  Yet during the same period 4,559 people were electrocuted in their homes,  21,018 were killed on the railways, 1.5 million on US roads and 2,954 were killed by lightening.

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.[17]  Uranium exploration commenced in Ireland and drilling in potential deposits commenced in Donegal and Wicklow. 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 Fianna 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 Fianna Fail 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 59 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 hiring an extra 1000 engineers.

Despite the findings of both an OECD investigation[18] and an Irish government task force[19], 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 opinion 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.

In addition to the 437 nuclear power plants in operation 34 new plants are under construction, 70 more are at the planning stage and a further 150 have been proposed. Most countries in the developed world have emerging plans for nuclear. The technology has moved on and there is much interest in the German pebble-bed reactor concept now under construction in both South Africa and China, and under development in the Netherlands. Pebble-bed reactors offer the prospect not only of generating low-cost electricity but also providing the means by which hydrogen can be extracted from ordinary water, using the sulphur-iodine process…providing the much sought-after pollution-free fuel for transport and heating.

The pebble-bed reactor[20][21]represents a major technological break-through.  The fuel is in the form of fine grains of uranium, each coated with several layers of a ceramic that provides a seal about the uranium that is good for 1 million years.  These coated grains are formed together into spheres the size of tennis balls, which are again sealed in a ceramic.  Thousands of these balls are then placed in the nuclear reactor vessel and heat is removed by blowing helium through the gaps between the spheres, thereby in a very simple way eliminating the mass of coolant pipe-work and maintenance problems associated with earlier reactors.  Helium is such an inert gas it can be heated to very high temperatures. It leaves the pebble-bed reactors at above 900C.  The hot gas can then be used to drive gas turbines and generate electricity or, as proposed, be used to crack water and extract hydrogen for use as a clean fuel in transportation and heating.

The sulphur-iodine process[22], which was developed in the 1970s, is a chemical means of extracting hydrogen from water.  It requires a particularly high temperature heat source and the pebble-bed reactor provides this.  The Chinese, who have been importing such large amounts of oil and gas, are particularly interested. China has licensed the German technology and has a major research and development programme underway. Their initial focus is on electricity generation. Construction of the first of thirty planned 200 MW pebble-bed reactors is due for completion this year and research is underway with a view to building further reactors for hydrogen production.

Given the years of tabloid journalism and the political backdrop there is not much hope in the short term, without strong political leadership, of Ireland following the lead of other small countries such as Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, Lithuania and Latvia and investing in nuclear energy.  In the short term, as the issue is debated, Ireland must reduce its dependence on imported oil and gas. Facilitating Shell in bringing ashore the gas from the Corrib field is the most immediate priority. While wind energy is not competitive with other sources without subsidy, it is wise to encourage investment in renewable energy sources: Sustainable Energy Ireland has recently announced helpful incentives.

Because of its 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 without additional investment in costly energy storage systems.  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…again at considerable cost.  Interconnectors are expensive to build and the economic benefits are marginal.  But when the wind is not blowing Ireland’s energy shortfall has to be made up by other power plants on stand-by in Ireland or 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[23] will in the short term, until we mature, provide, once again, a UK solution to an Irish problem.

Spiralling energy costs, loss of competitiveness and plant closures, combined with global-warming concerns, are changing Irish attitudes towards nuclear energy. The debate, welcomed by Minister Eamon Ryan, is the essential prelude to rational action.

In time we will look back and see the ban on nuclear energy as hilariously ludicrous as those imposed in Ireland on the works of James Joyce, contraceptives and foreign games.

Dr Edward M Walsh is the Founding President of the University of Limerick. In the 1960s he directed an energy research laboratory in the US and served as an Associate of the US Atomic Energy Commission Laboratory at Ames, Iowa.

Contact:            087 2376357

[1] Lovelock, James. The Independent. 24 May 2004.

[2] Critical mass. Economist. 3 Dec 2005.

[3] O’Connor, Fergal. Business & Finance. 10 Aug 2006.

[4] Gurdgiev, Constantin. Business & Finance. 22 Feb 2007.

[5]Cullen, Paul. Ryan calls for debate on turning to nuclear power. Irish Times. 19 June 2007.

[6] World competitiveness report. IMD. 2005.

[7] Economics of nuclear power. Briefing paper 8. Jan 2006.

[8] Ball, Roberts & Simpson, Research Report #20, Centre for Environmental & Risk Management, University of East Anglia, 1994; Hirschberg et al, Paul Scherrer Institut, 1996; in: IAEA, Sustainable Development and Nuclear Power, 1997; Severe Accidents in the Energy Sector, Paul Scherrer Institut, 2001.   

[9] Coonan, Clifford. Irish Times. 18 Aug 2005.

[10] Goutal, N. Malpasset dam failure. National Hydraulic and Environement Laboratory. Electricite of France. Chatou. France.

[11] Vaiont dam disaster.

[12]Chernobyl Accident. Nuclear issues briefing paper 22. May 2007.

[13] Safety of nuclear power reactors. Nuclear issues briefing paper 14.

[14]Chernobyl Forum: 2003-05. Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Social-Economic Impacts. IAEA, WHO, UNDP. 2005

[15] Smith, J.T. and Beresford, N.A. Chernobyl – catastrophe and consequences. Springer. 2007.

[16] Business & Finance. 10 Aug 2006.

[17] Country reports: Ireland. Laka publications. 1995.

[18] OECD study says no health risk from spent nuclear fuel. PlanetArk. Reuters News Service.18 May 2000.

[19]J. Radiol. Prot. 20 80-81. 2000.   doi:10.1088/0952-4746/20/1/607

[20] Pebble bed reactor.

[21] Next generation of nuclear power? Technology news. ES&T Online News. 25 Jan 2006.

[22] Schultz, K.R. Use of the modular helium reactor for hydrogen production. World Nuclear Association annual symposium. London. Sep. 2003.

[23] Smyth, J. Sellafield site identified as possible new nuclear plant. Irish Times. 10 Apr 2006.

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