As the dust settles on the Christmas period, an interesting contribution on the nuclear debate in Ireland (what debate? You might well ask) comes from David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
As everyone in Ireland knows, nuclear power is bad, and we as a people stand four-square against it. Windscale was bad, Sellafield is bad, Chernobyl was really bad and Three Mile Island, that nearly blew up back in the 70s, so there, QED, no debate on nuclear power. Besides, doesn’t nuclear power equal nuclear weapons, somehow? (and we’re even more definitely against them).
Of course, the fact that we don’t have a nuclear power station here makes our opposition a good deal easier. We don’t have abortion here either, but it doesn’t stop our citizens going elsewhere for this service. Similarly, our implacable opposition to nuclear power doesn’t go so far as to our not being willing to buy nuclear-generated power on the grid from the UK.
The Government’s own White Paper on Energy Policy has ruled out the nuclear option even being considered this side of 2020. Ireland’s energy requirement is set to rise by a quarter between 2005 and 2013, yet at the same time, we’re supposed to be making serious reductions in our carbon emissions.
What is patently clear here is, barring a massive economic collapse, demand will continue to grow, and this annual growth in demand will neutralise whatever modest reductions are achieved in carbon emissions, either via greater efficiency or our oh-so-slow rollout of a wind and wave energy programs. This leaves Ireland in the entirely unacceptable business-as-usual bracket, and hopelessly out of step with Kyoto and miles away from where the recent Bali agreement says we need to be headed.
Ireland’s oil dependence is now per capita the highest in Europe. A decade of lousy planning has locked hundreds of thousands of commuters into permanent long-haul car dependence. Two thirds of all Ireland’s energy needs are met by burning oil (compared with an EU average of around 40%).
Does anyone here seriously think that we are going to meet our stated commitment of a third of all Ireland’s electricity being produced using renewables by 2020, and even if this were somehow to happen, 0ur predicted 3% per annum growth rates would pretty much wipe out these gains in real terms.
The nuclear option ain’t pretty, especially to the Left, much of which has been opposing nukes (in all forms) for so long it’s inconceivable they would be able to change tack now. But it may be realistic. France meets 80% of its massive electricity requirements via its domestic nuclear program, without any fuss or bother, and this program keeps hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 from being produced in the first place.
Nuclear power may not be a panacea, but compared with the alternatives it has its attractions. The pious response to the looming carbon-driven climate catastrophe is that we should all use less – much less – of everything, especially energy. There is no force on earth that will persuade people in their billions to forego the many comforts of a high-energy lifestyle, so consensus on this issue ain’t going to happen.
What we are left with is weighing the options; nuclear carries risks, but continuing our path of abundant fossil fuel usage entails not risks, but certainties, and they are bleak in the extreme. Renewables should of course have been heavily invested in 20 and more years ago; they offer much, but it’s going to take years, decades to see these deliver meaningful levels of affordable energy, and that is time we just don’t have.
Given Ireland’s peripheral location at the very edge of Europe, remote from Russian gas pipelines and a long, long way from the Gulf oil fields, it would seem imperative that we be addressing as a top national priority how we can give ourselves the best shot at securing our country’s energy needs.
Renewables can and will make a useful contribution here, but nuclear power, as the French have shown, can deliver clean, safe, carbon-friendly energy on the huge scale a modern economy demands. Even with emergency legislation in place to speed up the planning process, it would take at least a decade to get a new nuclear plant built here, but we have to start somewhere, and soon.
A belt-and-braces approach, involving a twin strategy of renewable energy backed up by nuclear would seem our best hope of being in good shape to face the very trying times ahead. Since we learned how to split the atom, nuclear power has always held the power to wipe out human life on this planet. It would be a rich irony if instead it became our saviour.