Ireland took an important step towards addressing its future energy needs with Eamon Ryan’s recent call for an Oireachtas committee discussion about nuclear power, writes Tom O’Flaherty.
It is becoming widely accepted that the greatest challenge facing human society over the next few decades is to arrest the onset of climate change, while there is still time to avert its more devastating effects. A parallel challenge is to meet the world’s energy needs, and to safeguard national competitiveness, against a background of the diminishing supply and increasing cost of oil and gas.
Clearly these challenges have to be met on two fronts: by curtailing growth in energy demand, and by major development of non-fossil sources of energy. It is BENE’s belief that nuclear energy has a vital contribution to make to the latter objective.
BENE recognises that there is a segment of opinion, including most of the green movement, which maintains that renewable energy, together with conservation measures, will be sufficient to combat the threat of climate change, without the need to use nuclear energy. BENE would respond that, at best, nobody can be certain that this is true. But what cannot be gainsaid is that nuclear is a proven technology, which is already supplying a substantial portion of the world’s electricity, with virtually zero emission of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Whatever its perceived or actual drawbacks, in view of the seriousness of the threat from climate change, it is BENE’s view that to refuse even to consider nuclear as part of the solution represents a degree of complacency which borders on the reckless.
BENE believes that in fact the broad thrust of public opinion in Ireland would accept that nuclear energy is a necessary component of the world’s energy supplies, but would be less convinced that we need to adopt it in Ireland. The essence of BENE’s position is that the latter issue is predominantly an economic and technical one, which should be addressed on its objective merits and with an open mind; whereas to exclude nuclear absolutely from consideration on emotional or purely political grounds is irrational, and contrary to the national interest.
But why would Ireland need even to consider nuclear energy? Have we not got a large wind energy resource, which we are only beginning to exploit? And, even if we might need some nuclear-generated electricity when the wind is not blowing, can we not import it through an interconnector across the Irish Sea?
The answer to these questions is: “Yes, but…” In relation to wind energy, and indeed other renewable sources, yes, they have a vital role to play, but even the most ambitious estimate of their potential contribution to electricity requirements is well under 40%. As to buying electricity generated in Britain, yes, we can do so, but only up to the capacity of the interconnectors over which it is to be transmitted, and to the extent that UK suppliers can make it available when we need it. In this regard, market realities will certainly dictate that if we badly need it at times when everybody’s generating capacity is stretched to its limit, then we will pay a large premium for the luxury of having it generated for us by somebody else – if indeed they will give us what we need at all.
In other words, the net effect of our choice not to have a nuclear power plant ourselves will be the carrying of a heavy cost penalty for the increasingly high-priced fossil fuels we will have to use instead, for the electricity we will import through interconnectors, and for carbon credits to compensate for the additional carbon we will be discharging. Further, we will face increasing international pressures because of the difficulties we will inevitably have in meeting ever more onerous EU and international limits on carbon emissions.
It is BENE’s contention that not alone our economy, but all our interests, would be better served by our deciding now to begin consideration of whether nuclear energy has a part to play in supplying Ireland’s future energy needs. Of course there are issues of plant safety, waste disposal, optimum plant size, which would have to be addressed in depth. That is why BENE would wish to see the establishment by the Government of an Expert Task Force, to be charged with examining and reporting on all the issues surrounding the establishment of a nuclear power plant in Ireland. In parallel with this process, BENE would welcome an open and unbiased debate on all aspects of the matter.