In Ireland and around the world, it is clear that renewables alone are not reducing emissions to the low levels required to meet our global climate change commitments. Ireland continues to be a laggard in reducing emissions even though we are a world leader in using wind energy.
Modern nuclear power plants could really help Ireland’s ambition to reduce emissions, and small newer designs promise to be the cheapest means of doing so. Together with renewables, Ireland could power a vibrant society with plenty of clean, affordable and energy by the mid- to late-2030’s.
Greenhouse gas emissions of nuclear power plants are among the lowest of any electricity generation method and on a lifecycle basis are comparable to wind, hydro-electricity and biomass. Reactors now coming to market can power a clean electricity system cheaper than a system without nuclear, while nuclear energy has had the fewest accidents and fatalities of any of the major power generating technologies.
They will be ideal to replace gas as well as our coal and peat stations that are due to close by 2025.
It can be reasonably argued that 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 2017 study by UCC estimated the cost of implementing the policy using existing technology to eventually exceed €8,100 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 some wind farms 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 by many millions of tonnes 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.
So, 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 as planned by 2025.
By 2027, small, advanced Nuclear Energy could well 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.
New Nuclear will lead to small plants – suitable for Ireland – with no emissions and some can even use nuclear waste as fuel! But the current legislative bans on nuclear energy in Ireland prevent us from allowing nuclear to help renewables to supply clean, cheap and reliable electricity.
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, is due to close 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.
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 2030, but thereafter we’ll require at least one other technology to lower emissions sufficiently at reasonable cost and with adequate reliability.
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 not permitted.
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 in time, if Ireland decides to go down that route.
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 then 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 up to 300 MW, SMRs are smaller than some of our existing generators and are ideal for Ireland.
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 no nuclear power station can 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.
Construction: While larger reactors often overrun their lengthy construction estimates, SMRs will be 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.
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 could 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, without serious incident.
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. Maintaining control of our electricity supply improves our energy security.
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 often witnessed against wind turbine and grid expansion projects nationwide.
Political Instability: Political instability in in nations that supply our fossils fuels makes it essential that Ireland diversifies its sources of energy. It is no longer certain that we will be able to obtain energy supplies from these regions indefinitely, even if we wanted to. Nuclear energy would provide considerable independence from these regions and would 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. Other existing fossil fuel stations could also be suitable locations, subject to a full assessment.
Opportunities: Local colleges could train nuclear engineers, operators, maintenance staff, environmental monitoring and protection staff and so on. New, high quality jobs could be created in 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 nuclear, around 50% from hydro, with the remainder mainly coming from coal and gas. Ireland, on the other hand, has over 50% from gas, 35% from renewables and the remainder is from coal, peat and imports. As a result, Ireland’s power generation emits around 4 times more CO2 per unit of electricity than Finland.
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 one of the first European nations 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.
Last Updated: 1 January 2021.