Ireland’s Energy: We need to debate the nuclear option honestly

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Fukushima nuclear power plant. The second-worst nuclear disaster in history killed no-one, while the tsunami that caused it killed more than 15,000 people. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters

There are pros and cons to nuclear energy, but the debate is often acrimonious and too often falls back to rhetoric instead of facts

The world’s traditional means of generating energy have been intensely polluting, expelling millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere with scant regard for the consequences. Ireland has been complicit in this: Moneypoint, the coal-powered station in Co Clare, releases 3.12 million tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere annually.

But as Moneypoint comes to the end of its operational life cycle, it is time to have a serious discussion about Ireland’s energy future, and nuclear power needs to be part of that discussion.

Proponents of nuclear point to its carbon-neutral and efficient nature, to the fact that it generates 13 per cent of the world’s energy, and to its high safety record. Opponents cite high-profile accidents and health and environmental risks.

The debate remains acrimonious and too often falls back to rhetoric instead of facts. In Ireland, policy-makers tiptoe around the issue, wary of its divisiveness. Yet if we are to have a serious discussion about our energy future, we must deal with facts over fictions.

The “pros” of nuclear energy are many. From an energy density standpoint, no other energy production method comes close; it is highly efficient, yielding thousands of times more energy than traditional chemical means. The volume of fuel required is relatively small, and in many cases unspent fuel can be recycled. Despite an ominous reputation, nuclear reactors have a high safety record with only a handful of deaths and accidents over six decades of use.

Radioactivity

Yet the “cons” of nuclear are hard to ignore. While radioactivity occurs naturally all around us, exposure to high levels can cause illness and death. This isn’t a problem inside reactors or storage sites which are well shielded, but could be a problem in the event of a catastrophic failure.

There have been three major incidents: Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl. While the first two did not result in loss of life, the appalling disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 certainly did and remains the worst nuclear accident of all time.

Yet misconceptions about the scale of the Chernobyl disaster abound. A 2011 UN report on Chernobyl quantified the human cost of the disaster: 28 clean-up workers were exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation with minimal protection and died from acute radiation sickness. A steam explosion released radioiodine, which hits children hardest, and 15 perished. Those present immediately after the disaster are at a slightly elevated risk of thyroid cancer, though meticulous research since 1986 has found zero increase in solid cancers or birth defects in affected populations.

That the health impact of Chernobyl is less than people might expect does not take away from the tragedy: at least 43 people died, and some of those exposed in 1986 may die early. But it does put the worst nuclear disaster in history in perspective.

Inherent risk

Fukushima, the second worst, was the result of a natural disaster that killed more than 15,000 people, yet Fukushima killed no one. By contrast, when the Banqiao hydro-electric dam failed in China, it led to the deaths of more than 171,000 people. All energy production has some inherent risk.

A more pressing issue with nuclear power is waste. While nuclear plants produce relatively little waste relative to their huge outputs, some of this byproduct can remain radioactive for decades or even millennia, needing careful storage. This requires planning in the order of centuries for optimum safety.

From a technical standpoint, deep geological storage is the preferred solution, but the storage of nuclear waste is a political problem, if not a scientific one.

There is another factor in this discussion: today’s waste will likely be tomorrow’s fuel. Generation IV nuclear reactors have the capacity to use current nuclear waste as fuel, producing a byproduct with a half-life of decades, rather than centuries. As this technology matures, it may resolve the storage issue.

If nuclear were accepted in a small country such as Ireland, there would be technical questions about which design would be best for our needs. One fit might be small modular nuclear reactors, which are prebuilt and can be assembled quickly with a minimum of complication. Their size and ease of construction keep electricity prices down, and they are relatively easy to decommission when no longer needed.

Yet placing them anywhere would be a hard sell. It would require strong political will and better understanding of the risks and rewards by citizens and politicians.

Nuclear is mired in misunderstanding. If we are to find the best solution to our energy needs it needs to be considered and apprised honestly.

Dr David Robert Grimes is a science writer and a physicist at Oxford University. davidrobertgrimes.com

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