More power to us if we choose nuclear option

Time to shake the ‘drill baby, drill’ debate on Ireland’s energy future up a little? here’s my piece in today’s Irish Times

OPINION: Instead of seeking partners to exploit hoped-for offshore fossil fuel resources, Ireland should consider building some medium-sized nuclear plants, writes JOHN GIBBONS

LAST MARCH, shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Fintan O’Toole memorably described a nuclear power station as “a concrete testament to hubris”. The term, he reminded us, came from the ancient Greek, and is a “warning that there are boundaries we should not cross”.

The damage to the nuclear power plants resulting from a massive earthquake followed by a mega-tsunami apparently proved not the mistake of siting these facilities in a vulnerable coastal location, but rather, the folly of building any system that can ever fail catastrophically.

In December 2009, on the eve of the ill-starred Copenhagen climate change conference, O’Toole wrote passionately about the choices we make with values, alluding clearly to the threat to “the future of humanity through climate change [and] . . . finite nature of many of the physical resources it consumes”.

Who could disagree with either of these propositions? First, never engineer systems that can destroy us, and second, accept that human existence itself hangs on the whim of a functioning biosphere.

O’Toole warns that hubris “is peculiar to economic and scientific elites, who are prey to utopian delusions”. To that list, may I respectfully add: newspaper columnists.

Having shaken off a fleeting awareness of the near-certainty of widescale systemic collapse arising from a climate catastrophe driven primarily by the combustion of fossil fuels, O’Toole now proposes – in two recent columns on our offshore oil and gas resources – a magical new solution to Ireland’s woes. Let’s dig up and burn fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Destroy the future to save the future, if you will.

The figures are instructive: there may be 6.5 billion barrels of oil and 20 trillion cubic feet of juicy fossil energy somewhere off our western seaboard. The burning of just the oil component of this Pandora’s box of ancient sunlight will add more than two billion tonnes of the heat-trapping trace gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) to the global atmosphere.

O’Toole’s master plan would unleash at a stroke the equivalent of our total annual emissions for the next 30-50 years. These are the same emissions we are legally and scientifically mandated to reduce by up to 80 per cent in the same period!

He expressed horror that the amoral engineers who design and operate nuclear plants are aware not only of the remote possibility of a catastrophe, but of the fact that nuclear waste will remain toxic for thousands of years.

Could a moral person then possibly argue in favour of an activity that carries enormous risks (such as deep-sea oil drilling 3km below the mountainous open waters of the north Atlantic) of a Deepwater Horizon-style catastrophe, and then be in favour of emitting a climate-altering gas that remains active in the atmosphere for centuries? O’Toole argues that engineers “see the question of what happens in the waste in the distant future as one that is incapable of being answered and therefore one that need not be addressed”. Quite.

The gutsy Norwegians have boxed clever with their hoard of black gold. Domestically, they slapped on a hefty carbon tax as far back as 1991. They prudently squirrel away billions from their energy windfall in a mé féin policy of looking after their own children’s future while the oil they profitably export help destroy everyone’s future.

As global climate destabilisation intensifies, temperature records are being rewritten right around the world on a monthly basis. The shift in large areas of the US is so sudden and so dramatic that climate scientists are already designating it as the “new normal”.

Nuclear energy carries risks, as does aviation, but we still persist because, on the balance of evidence, we reason that the benefits outweigh the risks. Despite extraordinary alarmism over Fukushima, how many people will die in the next 10-20 years as a result of radiation from this incident? Five? Ten? Zero?

On the other hand, at least three million people will die this year as a result of air pollution. That’s more than 8,000 people every day. The principal source is airborne particulates arising from the widescale mining and burning of fossil fuels. It blights the lives of the tens of millions more who live with chronic respiratory disorders from breathing polluted air.

What are the alternatives? Ireland has an embarrassment of renewable energy riches. With sharp demand reduction via insulation and a smart grid, plus a couple of medium-sized nuclear plants, we could possibly achieve the twin goals of strategic energy security and sustainability.

If this too sounds utopian, that’s only perhaps that we lack the guts to face down the Nimbys and deniers, be they from the left or right, and choose instead to tell ourselves comforting lies about the untold wealth lying offshore just waiting to lift us out of the frying pan of today’s crisis and into the inferno that awaits us.

Guts are good, but brains are even better. We’re going to need both.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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17 Responses to More power to us if we choose nuclear option

  1. klem says:

    “Instead of seeking partners to exploit hoped-for offshore fossil fuel resources, Ireland should consider building some medium-sized nuclear plants”

    Hmm here are a few more great reasons to push for nukes; Each plant costs a mere $10 billion to build, it costs over $300 million just to turn a nuclear plant off, nuclear plants are terrorist targets, the fuel is destructive to make, the fuel is dangerous to handle and transport, the fuel is a terrorist target, the spent fuel must be buried in old abandoned mines for thousands of years due to it’s toxicity, the spent fuel is also a terrorist target. In addition, there has never been a nuclear plant anywhere in the world which has made money without huge permanent subsidies, primarily because the industry is so heavily regulated they are unprofitable. Before they get a chance to pay for themselves they need to be retrofitted and refurbished, driving the costs up again after only a few decades of use. Of course we have Three Mile Island and Chernobyl to thank, the two main reasons why they are so heavily regulated, and now Fukushima will add more regulation. Just hearing the statement “nuclear is a lot safer today’, that’s the ultimate reason, it really gives me such confidence in nukes.

    Coal on the other hand is none of these things. It is old technology, plants are cheap to build, cheap to maintain, they are not welfare cases and they are not terrorist targets. The only problem is they emit smoke. Why can’t we solve this simple, old technology issue? I guess nuclear is sexy and coal is not. My suggestion is that instead of spending $10 Billion on a soooo sexy nuclear plant, we spend $1 Billion on R&D to make coal a smoke free energy source, and spend the remaining $9 billion to buy malaria mosquito nets for just about every vulnerable person on earth. And the whole coal/nuclear issue would go away. Perhaps even malaria too.


  2. John Goodwillie says:

    In all fairness, Fintan O’Toole was not advocating that gas and oil should be taken from the ground, he was talking about where the money from it should go. There is, of course, an argument for leaving all the oil and gas in the world in the ground in order to protect the atmosphere, but it would certainly be a catastrophe for everyone in the world to stop dead at this point. A world phase-out of oil and gas over a period of decades is all that can be contemplated: this will involve the exploitation of new wells as well as the continuation of old ones, and I can’t see any reason why some of the new ones should not be in (or off) Ireland. Any oil and gas from them used in Ireland will substitute for imports, not be additional to our present use, as long as we also go as fast as we can into renewable energy and energy conservation.

  3. John Gibbons says:


    I think FO’T is precisely and repeatedly arguing that we should take oil and gas in industrial quantities from wherever we can find them and burn/sell it all asap. For him to make this argument without for a moment pausing to consider the practical consequences of this path seems dubious to me. FO’T is a fine analyst and has written an excellent volume (Ship of Fools) on the scoundrels in politics, finance etc. who wrecked this country. His arts coverage is also worth reading. His grasp of the issues regarding energy is of a far lower quality, and that is regrettable but needs pointing out in unambiguous terms.

  4. Harry says:

    Good article as usual. One observation. Surely a strong argument in favour of nuclear power is the Japanese event! After a mega earthquake and a giant tsunami, hitting an old nuclear plant in a badly situated earthquake prone location, the leakage and resultant deaths are relatively minimal, especially when you compare it to the damage and loss of life caused by the natural occurring event- the tsunami.
    I am sure that technology has improved since these old plants were built and smaller plants in a stable earthquake free zone such as Ireland would be relatively low risk.

  5. Denis says:

    Last December (when we were freezing in ireland) you pointed to the fact that the Russian Summer of 2010 was very hot and that this was proof of global warming..

    Anyone living in Ireland over the last 5 years now knows that we have had had five lousy, cold miserable Summers in a row (the radiators were put on in my Office yesterday people were so cold) and have had increasing episodes of sub-zero temperatures and snowfalls in the last 4 Winters.

    I am not a Climate Change sceptic per se, but I really can’t see how our actual climate experiences in this country can support what you still refer to as ‘Global Warming’ on your Website.

  6. Denis Rodgers says:

    @Addam (2 d’s??)

    So glad I made you laugh, but I am pefectly entitled to pose a question based on actual empirical evidence in this part of the globe (no matter how small.

    To be honest I can’t make head nor tail of the patronising tosh that you provided as a response – so it’s totally wasted on me.

  7. John Gibbons says:

    @ Denis
    Adam Smith has beaten me to the punch in terms of a response. The term ‘global warming’ accurately describes what happens as global CO2 levels rise over time. Extra heating is now accumulating within and impacting Earth systems (the great bulk of this is being buffered for now by the oceans – water, as you know, requires vastly more energy per sq. meter to heat compared to land surface).

    However, the same label inaccurately infers that the entire planet is warming uniformly, and this ambiguity has been pounced on by both elements in the media and the denier camp as a whole as ‘proof’ that the whole, you know, scientific process of gathering evidence (both painstakingly accumulated in the field and using advanced computer modelling) in recent decades and then drawing our conclusions and projections based on the strongest available evidence is somehow, well, basically wrong.

    Creationists argue that evolutionary theory is just “one” explanation of how life evolved, and besides, since scientists cannot explain 100% of everything to do with evolution 100% of the time, who knows, maybe it’s all completely wrong as well? More importantly, complexity and genuine scientific uncertainty allows ample scope for crackpots, conspiracy theorists, energy company stooges and employees of Rupert Murdoch to swarm into the cracks and start accusing the people gathering the scientific evidence of being part of some giant global conspiracy of white coats trying to trick or scare everyone in order to get new research grants.

    This is Rick Perry country, and I’m sure Denis this is not where any thinking person wants to be. Let’s stick to the evidence, and let’s be guided by it, come what may. Politics, ideology and religious beliefs all have their roles in human society, but none of them are of any assistance whatever when it comes to discerning the basic physics of our planet. For that, we turn to real experts. Challenge them: sure. Question their findings: absolutely. That’s what we have peer-reviewed literature for, and it’s an extremely robust way of sifting out the good ideas from the dumb ones.

    There is no one quicker to rip a scientist who errs in his data or his interpretation of that data than another scientist in the same field. This is how science advances. If you have a better system, I’d like to hear it. Letting pathological liars and fundamentalist assholes like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman corrupt the very process of scientific understanding is one of the true crimes of our age, and future generations will look back in bewilderment at how, at the pinnacle of our evolution, humanity suddenly got collectively stoooopid and turned away from science and back to the TV snake oil salesmen, religious nut jobs, media whores and assorted quacks for guidance.

    Perhaps that’s the fate of all empires – to collapse internally through resource exhaustion that, thanks to hubris and folly, nobody predicts or is prepared to act upon. Certainly looks that way.

  8. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    @John, – That was a highly effective rebuttal to Fintan O’Toole’s two ‘Great Oil and Gas Giveaway’ articles in The Irish Times. I’d have to agree with you on every point.

    It’s unfortunate, then, that it didn’t stop Fintan O’Toole going on the Ivan Yates-hosted Tonight with Vincent Browne show on TV3 on Thursday to make his exact same points again in debate with Minister Pat Rabbitte (Communications, Energy & Natural Resources), Éamon Ó Cuív TD (Galway West) and a representative from the Irish oil exploration industry, Fergus Cahill.

    The most annoying aspect of the debate was that at no point was the option of leaving the oil in the ground even mentioned, and that’s assuming there’s any in the Irish offshore.

    We already know that full exploitation of the world’s known remaining oil resources, never mind the unknown, is more than the biosphere can stand in the medium term, because of the impact on the climate. The only safe thing to do is to leave undiscovered resources where they lie. For at least a thousand years.

    Fintan O’Toole must know that. He’s the deputy editor of The Irish Times as well as being the country’s top journalist. There’s not much he doesn’t know or understand.

    His idea that we should invite Norway to handle our potential offshore oil resources may not have come out of thin air. Earlier in the summer, an RTÉ Prime Time programme on Irish energy elicited a comment from an overseas expert that Ireland should come to an arrangement with Norway to meet Ireland’s future oil and gas needs. We were a small country, he said, and would only need a fraction of what Norway held in reserves. No need to worry about possible interruptions in Middle East oil supplies or bother ourselves with building windfarms.

    This was certainly an attractive argument, but O’Toole could immediately see a flaw: there was no incentive for Norway to guarantee Ireland’s supply. So O’Toole came up with an incentive: let them exploit whatever lay off Ireland’s coast; it would be theirs for next to nothing. In return, whether they found anything or not, they’d keep a pipeline open between between us and the North Sea.

    We couldn’t afford the enormous cost of exploration and drilling, but Statoil could. If they found even a fraction of what some experts believed was out there, we’d be in clover.

    This is how O’Toole probably sees things, though we haven’t had an oil or gas strike since Corrib in 1996, and only two before then, so the chances of another are not high. And let’s hope they stay that way, because Planet Earth is already on its last legs, and fossil fuels are the main culprit.

    O’Toole’s oil and gas-sharing idea has another, unspoken advantage: it would buy us the friendship and support of a major oil company for the long term. This is something we are going to need when the oil runs out and when Big Oil switches to renewables, including wind and solar, as it inevitably will. And nuclear too.

    Successive governments, mainly FF-led, over the last thirty years failed to establish an Irish renewable energy infrastructure or develop the required technical expertise. We are going to need outside help. It’s not like we weren’t warned: the Greens have been calling for this for years.

    O’Toole once wrote in support of the Shell to Sea campaign, if my memory serves me, but now he realises the risk of alienating the oil companies. Shell had planned to bring the gas ashore by 2001, but the protests have delayed this by ten years (and counting).

    The Corrib field will have a lifetime of about 15 years – it’s not a major find – so it would have been smarter to let it go ahead quickly, take our paltry share, and build a relationship with Shell for the future. As things stand, it is unlikely that Shell will ever want to help us exploit further fields, if found, or help us develop our renewables and secure our energy future.

    And so Fintan O’Toole wants Norway to come in and take care of us. He’s betting that with oil wells drying up everywhere, and with ongoing improvements in technology, it will soon become profitable to exploit the Irish offshore, however deep.

    He talks of a potential ten billion barrels of oil being out there, according to some geological report. But will any of it ever see the light of day? The global economy has been shrinking since 2007 and it looks increasingly likely it will never return to past levels. We are in a new type of situation now where ongoing destruction of finite natural resources will mean a planet unable to support population growth. Soon enough, no matter how high the price of oil goes, there won’t be any money to bring it to the surface, all credit having dried up, at least for projects of this scale. (It costs $70 million to drill just one exploratory well.)

    It’s irresponsible to talk of opening up new fields off the west coast, because of the impact on climate and ocean acidity. It’s likely that offshore drilling will decline anyway as the global economy continues to shrink. And it’s probable that no new oil or gas, other than Corrib, will ever be brought ashore here. Fintan O’Toole needs to refocus on the solutions that will matter in the future: wind, solar and nuclear. His big idea is a pipe dream.

  9. John Gibbons says:

    You’re pretty much on the money. FO’T simply isn’t up to the job of being an energy analyst, but lacks the humility to grasp this. Doubtless he dismissed my piece as more Eco tittle tattle, and as you’ll have spotted, the IT has pretty much entirely washed its hands of the whole climate/ecology/sustainability beat, as has RTE (the latter no longer even has an Environment Correspondent).

    The analytical vacuum is thus being filled by have-a-go commentators like O’Toole (and he is far from the worst of them; as stated above, in his areas of competence, he is peerless).

    BTW, have you yourself had a rethink on the nuclear energy issue? If so, I’m glad to hear it. We all need to modify our opinions as the facts change, and keep even our most dearly held convictions under constant review. Unfortunately, groups like Greenpeace continue to spew out dangerous anti-scientific agitprop about Fukushima, thus ironically aligning themselves with Tea Party á la carte idealogues. I’ll elaborate on this presently.

  10. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    On nuclear, it’s not a rethink as such, as I accepted years ago that going nuclear would help solve the problem, and even be vital to it, globally. I am still not sure, however, that it’s the solution for Ireland given the enormous cost and the fact that we would be starting from scratch and have to import all the technology and the people to run it, though I realise that the costs are coming down now. But I think we should be developing our indigenous renewables, particularly wind, solar, geothermal and willow biomass, and that we should have started this in the 1990s. If we had, we would by now be leaders in renewables technology and probably be exporting energy to mainland Europe and selling technological innovations on the world market.

  11. denisk says:

    So called renewable energy is anything but renewable. It comes from machines that are built from and backed up by fossil fuels.
    As it is impossible for these machines to be built from their own energy output whilst supplying the grid at the same time, without the addional major input from fossil fuels, they will become extinct when the fossil fuels run out.
    Our only hope is that small modular nuclear reactors, built in factories on assembly lines with much less embodied energy than their large custom made brothers, may become a reality within the next 10 years, and that these factories may in turn be run by the electricity from a small nuclear reactor .

  12. klem says:

    “Also, the scrubbers installed on Moneypoint in the early noughties cost approx. €250 million. Good luck making coal 100% clean globally with a billion dollars”

    yea it would likely require more than a billion, but you know what? Not one cent has actually been spent, they have never even tried.

  13. klem says:

    “After a mega earthquake and a giant tsunami, hitting an old nuclear plant in a badly situated earthquake prone location, the leakage and resultant deaths are relatively minimal,”

    If the earthquake and tsunami had hit a coal fired generating station, this would not even be a topic of discussion.


  14. klem says:

    “Anyone living in Ireland over the last 5 years now knows that we have had had five lousy, cold miserable Summers in a row”

    Cold summers are no more evidence of global warming than scorching hot summers. Cold summers are merely evidence of that the earths climate changes only, they are not evidence that human activity is the cause.


  15. Aldas Nabazas says:

    Let’s take a look what science has to say:

    and for alternative? sure :
    That’s the reality. Welcome.

  16. Gavin Harte says:

    Hi John,
    Your last point about airbourn pollution is valid but also a double a bit simple. In fact smoke from fossil fuel may well be a double edged sword. It is highly likley that these same airbourne particles may in fact be damping down overall warming due to there reflective qualities in the atmosphere. So just like a junkie, giving up oil may hurt in more ways than one. That said you must also remember that nukes are also against the law here and that not going to change soon.

  17. John Gibbons says:

    Hi Gavin
    Thanks for dropping by. You are correct in pointing out that fossil-fuel pollution is ironically keeping a lid on heating (though this is mostly as a result of SO2 from coal-fired stations, especially the super-dirty plants now being added in huge numbers in China and India). That is, however, an entirely unsatisfactory argument for continuing down a road to sure-fire disaster.

    On your point about nukes being against the law here in good ol’ Ireland, it’s a short few years back that contraception was illegal here too. And homosexuality was a criminal offense. We shouldn’t hide behind bad laws, we should challenge and overturn them.

    I would welcome someone, anyone, explaining to me how we can keep some variant of industrial civilization alive without either self-immolating via atmospheric CO2 from fossil emissions or sitting in the dark wondering where the other 90-95% of the energy that doesn’t (and won’t) come from renewables is going to come from instead. The case of the elderly woman now in jail for refusing the ESB access to her land to install pylons is just a small foretaste of what it’s going to be like to cover the length and breadth of Ireland with pylons and windmills to replace fossil energy. It ain’t going to happen, and we know it, but it still seems preferable to continue with this charade than face the unpleasant fact that we’re bang out of options here.

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