Why Nuclear?

Original artwork by @AtomicAristides

Salt reactors will be available soon and could supply the cleanestcheapest and safest electricity in Ireland. They will be ideal to replace coal and peat burning by 2025.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s energy policy is uneconomical, disruptive, unpopular and ineffective. While Nuclear alone can’t solve all these problems, it could be very useful at helping Ireland to develop an energy system that is clean, affordable, safe and reliable.

The energy policy is uneconomical as it will lead to ever-increasing costs the more it is implemented. A recent joint study by UCC and ESRI estimated the cost of implementing the policy using existing technology to eventually exceed €20,000 per tonne of CO2 – while the market price of CO2 is less than €30 per tonne. These levels of cost are not sustainable. Meanwhile, new nuclear plants offer the cheapest clean energy available.

The policy is disruptive as it requires the extensive construction of wind farms, solar farms etc throughout the country and near many homes, villages and towns where they are often not welcome. There is also a need to connect these installations with overhead cables, pylons and sub-stations. Instead, we could install small, safe nuclear plants at existing power stations and use the existing overhead network, with far less disruption.

It is no surprise that these installations are unpopular as they can cause visual, noise, financial or other nuisances to people who do not believe the benefit is worth the intrusion. Installing new nuclear at existing power stations would preserve the existing jobs and infrastructure while improving the environment surrounding these stations.

That the policy is ineffective is obvious when the EPA says Ireland will miss its 2020 emissions limits from 2016 or, at the latest, 2017. And we are unlikely to meet our 2020 Renewables targets in Electricity, Heat or Transport. Using new nuclear would allow us to meet our emissions targets in an affordable manner while still maintaining a reliable energy supply.

EPA graph showing emissions exceeding our 2020 target line

Given that we will miss our Emissions and Renewables targets, incur extra costs and inconvenience in building overhead lines and pylons, cause widespread protests over wind farms and so on, and face large increases in costs associated with this inadequate policy, why not step back and take a look at what Nuclear can do for Ireland?

We should especially consider what role nuclear will play when our coal fired station at Moneypoint closes between 2025 and 2030.

By then, small, advanced Nuclear Energy will be the cheapest and safest means of generating low-carbon electricity and, by storing heat in the solar salts, could be ideal partners for Renewables and help reduce our energy related emissions.

Reactor heats salt when wind + sun are present but is ready to generate when needed

New Nuclear will lead to small plants – suitable for Ireland – with no emissions and they can even use nuclear waste as fuel! But the current legislative bans on nuclear energy in Ireland are preventing us from allowing nuclear to help our renewables supply clean, cheap and reliable electricity.

We are a long way from our 2020 Renewables target of 16%

The 2014 Green Paper on Energy Policy in Ireland questioned whether nuclear energy has potential for Ireland, given the significant threats posed by climate change and by volatile fossil fuel prices. While it accepted the useful but limited role that renewables can play in our energy future, the subsequent 2015 Energy White Paper failed to answer the question.

The question of nuclear energy arises now because the coal burning station at Moneypoint, which provided our most affordable baseload electricity since 1985, approaches its end of life by 2025. It is critical for our society and economy that we select its most appropriate replacement in terms of affordability, emissions, reliability and safety.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly outlines the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly, leading to increasingly strict EU emissions targets. The graph below shows the EPA projection that Ireland will exceed our 2020 emissions target by up to 11.5 million tonnes at a cost of some €250 million – even if we fully implement everything we currently plan to do and despite our excellent renewable resources.

Projected cumulative distance to target for Irelands Non-ETS emissions 2013 to 2020 (EPA)

No existing low-emissions technology can easily replace Moneypoint’s reliable baseload output. Regular hydro power is effectively fully utilized in Ireland; wind energy is intermittent as it depends on the weather and so is unsuitable as a baseload supply; while emissions from gas-fired generation are excessive as they are almost half that from coal. Our current concentration on gas and renewables may be adequate to 2020, but thereafter we’ll require at least one other technology to lower emissions sufficiently at reasonable cost and with adequate reliability.

What technologies can replace Moneypoint?

Some innovative solutions have been proposed but none are progressing as speculated. Of these, wave and tidal systems are extremely unlikely to reach even our target of 500 MW installed and they will be intermittent and expensive; large-scale pumped storage has made little effective progress since it was first mooted five years ago; and Carbon Capture and Storage systems are still unproven while the storage of captured gas in Ireland is now prohibited.

An earlier proposed biomass solution is currently out of favour, however, and many environmentalists have serious concerns about its impact.

There is good support in Ireland for considering nuclear energy. Many significant Irish organisations (including EirGrid, ESB, Commission for Energy Regulation, Forfás, The Competitiveness Council, IBEC and ICTU) have called for nuclear to be considered here, as have a number of independent experts and all the national newspapers. In July 2014, the CEO of ESB said that he “didn’t disagree about it [the need to go nuclear] at all”. He also said that there is a case for nuclear on the island of Ireland only if the size of nuclear plants was to be appropriate for us, and we explain below that suitably sized plants will be available before Moneypoint is retired.

But what about the fact that nuclear energy has been contentious in Ireland since the 1970’s when ESB proposed a nuclear plant at Carnsore Point, Co Wexford? The argument was that nuclear power plants were not safe; they were too expensive and too big for Ireland; that we couldn’t build them and the waste is too dangerous.

The answer lies in the smaller modular reactors (SMRs) under development in the US, Britain and elsewhere. These advanced reactors address the most popular of the reservations people have about nuclear energy. At around 200 MW, SMRs are smaller than some of our existing generators and are ideal for Ireland.

Greenhouse Gas emissions from various technologies (IPCC)

Emissions: Nuclear has near-zero emissions as can be seen in this graph. A nuclear station the size of Moneypoint would save over 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year compared to coal and over 2.5 million tonnes compared to gas-fired combined cycle plant. Each of the low carbon options (solar, biomass, nuclear, hydroelectric and wind) should be assessed before deciding on our energy strategy for a sustainable future. This assessment is best conducted by an independent group of experts.

Safety: SMRs are based on nuclear submarine technology, which has an impeccable safety record. They incorporate the lessons learnt from earlier failures and have “passive safety”, making them even safer than existing reactors – no operator intervention is required for up to 14 days even if all backup power is lost. And they cannot explode like a nuclear bomb under any circumstances whatsoever.

Nuclear is the safest baseload power generation technology on an objective like-for-like comparison. This is reflected in the fact that there are more reactors planned or proposed now (482) than before the Fukushima accident (478). Even Belarus, which was impacted most by Chernobyl, is building its first two nuclear units with two more planned for around 2025.

Cost: SMRs can produce electricity for between 5 cent and 8.4 cent per unit, which is much cheaper than Britain’s 9 pence per unit from its new nuclear units. This cost curve (from a Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland report) shows how it is cheaper to reduce emissions using nuclear than using large amounts of onshore wind or using offshore wind, wave or tidal energy. Note that SMRs would reduce costs significantly compared to the nuclear plants used in the SEAI study.

CO2 abatement cost of low carbon power (SEAI)

Construction: While larger reactors often overrun their lengthy construction estimates, SMRs are built in factory and require minimal assembly on site, reducing build time to 3 years. Improved build reliability leads to improved project certainty, which greatly reduces project risk. This, in turn, lowers the cost of finance, which reduces the final cost of electricity.

Projected cash flow model for sequential construction of 6 SMRs, totalling 1080 MW (BENE calculations)

By installing the units sequentially, the first SMR would be operating and earning income before the next is underway, thus reducing the total sunk capital requirement to levels affordable by privately owned utilities – no State investment or subvention would be required.

Waste: Under International agreements, such as proposed by the International Framework for Nuclear Energy Cooperation, Ireland would source its nuclear fuel from an existing nuclear nation to whom we would return all the spent fuel for safe storage or reprocessing. There is now over 60 years of experience in storing spent fuel from nuclear power stations, and there has been no serious incidents with this fuel to date.

Reliability: Nuclear reactors are typically available for over 90% of the time.

Compatibility: Cheaper power from SMRs can offset the higher cost of certain renewables. Crucially, like nuclear submarines, SMRs can change power output quickly to accommodate intermittent wind and solar energy, resulting in a clean, reliable, safe and affordable electricity supply.

Interconnector: The graph below outlines how we import far more energy during the day, when prices are highest, than we export overnight (when prices are lowest). Lower energy prices from cheaper Irish Nuclear would allow us to export electricity, improve competitiveness in Ireland, improve our balance of payments and increase employment. It is also important to note that maintaining control of our electricity supply improves energy security.

Average EWIC flow 2012-2016 is predominantly Import from UK (based on EirGrid data)
 Over half the respondents said 'yes'.
‘Should Ireland start using nuclear power?’ Over half the respondents in favour.

Public opinion on nuclear energy in Ireland has not been sought comprehensively to date. Evidence of public support is clear from this July 2016 online poll asking whether the ban on nuclear power should be lifted – 50% were in favour with 44% against, from a poll of 14,129 respondents. A comprehensive and unbiased assessment of public opinion should be sought on the matter.

Objections: While nuclear energy is contentious, there is large public opposition in Ireland to almost every significant piece of proposed infrastructure including gas fields, wind turbines and electricity pylons. However, nuclear has one clear advantage over the others: it could be installed at an existing power station and use existing electricity transmission cables, concentrating the argument into a single location. This could avoid the type of expanding protests now being witnessed against wind turbine and grid expansion projects nationwide.

Political Instability: The increasing political instability in the Middle East and Russia will make it essential that Ireland diversifies its sources of energy as it is no longer certain that it will be able to obtain energy supplies from these regions in the foreseeable future. Nuclear energy would provide considerable independence from these regions and help ensure security of supply.

Siting: Moneypoint is just one of a number of suitable locations in Ireland, each of which could have a number of SMRs providing hundreds of high quality jobs in a safe and clean environment.

Opportunities: Local colleges could train nuclear engineers, operators, maintenance staff, environmental monitoring and protection staff and so on. Meaningful jobs could also be created in the areas of simulator training, foreign consultancy, civil defense, communication and marketing, finance and so on.

Local County Councils would benefit hugely from significant rates, secured for 60 years or more. There would also be many service jobs in these communities and the prosperity of the entire region would be enhanced by the presence of the SMR plant. National competitiveness would also receive a boost through lower guaranteed cost of power for businesses throughout Ireland.

The cost of not going nuclear: To illustrate the long-term effects of national energy policy decisions, consider the cases of Ireland and Finland. Both these countries proposed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1960’s and were the first signatories of this treaty when it came into being in 1968. Within 12 years, Ireland had rejected nuclear power generation while Finland adopted it.

Now, Finland has a balanced portfolio of fuels in its generation mix, producing around 30% from each of nuclear, hydro and coal, with the remainder mainly coming from gas. Ireland, on the other hand, has over 60% from gas, 15% from renewables and the remainder is from coal and peat. As a result, Finland emits only marginally more CO2 per head of population than Ireland while using twice as much energy as us.

Critically, electricity is 50% more expensive for Irish households and 100% more expensive for Irish industry than for their Finnish counterparts. This is a clear and practical illustration of the economic and environmental benefits that Ireland is passing up with its current prohibition of nuclear power.

The way forward

Ireland will need a mix of generating technologies including renewables, gas and nuclear to keep energy affordable while meeting our environmental targets. To help achieve this, we should study the potential of nuclear energy, and particularly SMRs, without delay.

We should also repeal the current legislation that precludes us from using nuclear energy.

There is a tremendous potential opportunity for Ireland to take full commercial advantage of being the first European nation to deploy small nuclear reactors while moving further towards a low emissions, lower cost energy supply.

Rather than being seen as a threat, nuclear energy can work to our advantage. The time to consider whether we want to seize this opportunity is now. If we decide not to pursue nuclear energy, then we must clearly identify an adequate alternative and fully understand the economic and societal cost implications of adopting that alternative.

8 thoughts on “Why Nuclear?”

  1. What about the corrupt agri finance types who would make no cash out of nuclear. Technically a bit beyond their understanding. They only understand heifers , bulls and bullocks and EU subsidies. Like Cattle subsidies and wind farm subsidies.They , the agri finance types, do not really understand that machines are different than heifer, bulls and bullocks but the subsidies come from the EU. Where all the heifers, bulls and bullock subsidies come from. They talk the same subsidy language. Producing electricity a couple of kilowatts will do then sell on.Then back to to heifers bulls and bullock subsidies.Wind losses a well it was government let the commoners can pay for that.

  2. Excellent article. This is something I have believed for many years and I think your suggestion of small modular reactors is the very best option currently. You mention SMR have an output of 200 mw, I wonder are there issues connecting reactors in series. The reason being, that your example of moneypoint generates approximately 1000 MW which would require five small modular reactors to replace. My git feeling is that we should have small modular reactors rather than single large reactors for the reasons you mentioned previously.I also note that with current legislation banning petrol and diesel cars within the next 20 years will lead to a doubling of current electrical demand to facilitate a car fleet today running at approximately 2.5 million. I estimate a power requirement in the region of 1500 to 2000 MW Minimum for this alone. I would be interested to know if you have dealt with any politicians to discuss this strategy and is there any movement in this direction.

    1. Thanks, Andrew – you make a number of good points here. Sorry for the late reply but I was away last week.

      As there is nothing unique about how a nuclear powered generator would fit into an electrical grid, there would be no problem in having a number of them in a single power station. One possibility is to have 5 or 6 SMRs of 200 MW each at Moneypoint, whose cables are capable of supplying over 1200 MW to the east coast of Ireland.

      The general idea is to electrify as much heating and transport load as we can realistically, while we decarbonise electricity using all low-carbon power sources including renewables and nuclear. Biomass and CCS (carbon capture and storage) are unlikely to meet our environmental and economic needs.

      While a number of politicians agree with this strategy, there has been no political movement in that direction as yet. But it is increasingly obvious to anyone who looks at the matter objectively, that while it will still be very difficult to meet our emissions targets by including nuclear in the mix, it will be almost impossible without nuclear. Public interest in nuclear for Ireland is most certainly on the increase.

  3. Denis
    I saw in one of the Sunday papers (since mislaid) that the advantages of SMRs were exaggerated, that they are only at the development stage and will not be available before 2030 at the very earliest. As well as that the article stated that the price of these SMRs would be prohibitive. I was wondering did you see the article and if so can it’s contents be refuted.
    John Williams

    1. John,
      I didn’t see the article but, from what you say, it would appear to be far too pessimistic.

      While there a number of small reactors already available worldwide, some of the newer SMRs are making steady progress. One of these is based on the pebble bed concept and will produce around 200 MW of electricity. The 2 reactors are already built and have their fuel loaded while the steam turbine is ahead of schedule. It should be commissioned later in 2018. See http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/HTR-PM-steam-generator-passes-pressure-tests . It’s the Chinese High Temperature Reactor (HTR-PM).

      NuScale, a 60 MWe US Pressurised Water reactor, is on schedule for the first unit to be in operation around 2023 at a cost of $4200 / kW and producing electricity for around $70 / MWh. See https://www.nuscalepower.com/ .

      Reactors such as these are likely to be far cheaper than the 70% Renewables paper recently published by the Wind Energy Association, which estimated costs of €10 billion (they call this an ‘investment’ while everyone knows it is a cost) and would still not reduce our emissions to the levels they need to reach if we are to do our bit in tackling climate change effectively.

      I could respond more fully if I saw the article, though. Are you planning a response?

      1. Thanks for the reply. I cannot lay my hands on the paper or remember which one. Anyway I don’t have the technical knowhow to go public. Your reply is very useful for me to build up a base of technical knowledge.
        Thanks again.
        John Williams

  4. Dear BENE,

    Consider the announcement yesterday that Bord na Móna is to start laying off significant numbers of its work-force. “Union warns Government is ‘sleepwalking into a crisis which will devastate Midlands’”† You would think that with (1) popular sentiment around 50% in combination with (2) the latest IPCC report and (3) with the news that now is the time to switch from burning our bogs to a more sustainable source there could be a push to investigate building a next-gen nuclear reactor in Ireland.

    We’re in a non-seismic zone. We have access to plenty of water. We have a talented work-force (I personally have met nuclear physicists who had to emigrate to France because there is no work in Ireland). The number of countries around the world including nuclear power in their energy mix is rising. If we’re not part of EurAtom we could be in the morning. We could access Chinese and French tech and money easily. All we need is the political will.

    I get that people are afraid of nuclear power. But many of these people think with their gut and their feelings rather than thinking about the situation dispassionately. If you’re serious about climate change but declare nuclear power is not a viable option I reckon that removes you from rational discourse.

    Perhaps the time has come to establish a lobbying group post-haste to get a law enacted to allow public and private research into nuclear power in Ireland. The technology is practically 100 years old. Like Italy which is also in denial, we’ll be importing nuclear generated electricity anyway so we may as well build the damn things ourselves. I’m thinking Donegal.


    1. Some great points there, Anthony.

      Fortunately, we are already in Euratom, as is every member of the EU. Euratom was 1 of the 3 pillars that formed the original European Community back in the mid-50’s and has been kept pretty much intact ever since. So, access to fuel is guaranteed if we ever decide to use nuclear energy directly in Ireland – rather than import it from the UK and, in time, from France.

      I agree that it beggars belief that we are completely ignoring the potential of nuclear energy at a time that the UN is telling us – and we agree – that we must do everything we can to tackle the causes of climate change.

      There are a number of good sites in Ireland for our first nuclear power station. Moneypoint in Co Clare would be ideal, where it could directly replace the coal fired units that are due to close by 2025-30. Carnsore Point would also be a good location, and would bring many benefits to the local area.

      Would you like to help us in lobbying for a sensible approach to nuclear in Ireland? Our political leaders will only follow the will of the people, as ever, so the lead must come from us.

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