September 11, 2005

We need to go nuclear

Posted in International Economy ·
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What will happen to our civilisation if we have no power?

Could we survive?

How would you behave if the lights flickered, dimmed and then went out for good?

These questions are no longer the stuff of science fiction. In our lifetimes, possibly as early as the next decade, the world will begin to run out of oil.

In the interim, oil prices are likely to rise, governments and regimes will come and go and petrol is likely to be rationed.

We will look for alternatives. We will start to burn other stuff – other fossil fuels – to feed our insatiable desire for energy.

What impact will turning the world into a giant pyre have on global warming?

Environmental concerns apart, these other fuels, like oil, are a finite resource � so what happens when we run out of things to burn? What will we do then?

This week, we had a number of reports, both domestic and international, focusing on how we might deal with the end of oil, and at the same time reduce carbon emissions to prevent global warming.

The reports focused on a combination of changing our behaviour (shorthand for consuming less) and using alternative, more environmentally-efficient energy sources.

One report cited elephant grass as a viable alternative for Ireland. This is doubtless part of the solution, but the missing link in this discussion is the real elephant in the corner, which nobody is prepared to talk about for fear of eternal damnation.

In Ireland, we are all afraid of the N word. This word cannot be used in polite conversation. It is a word so vile, foul and degrading, it automatically puts you outside the pale.

The N word breaks all the rules. So let’s just whisper it. Shush, quietly now. . . nuclear. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Say it again, nuclear. Yes, nuclear power. Is it time to revisit nuclear power? Given the depletion of the world’s resources and the fact that carbon emissions are unsustainable, nuclear power is a logical alternative.

The very word �nuclear’ scares us. Its lexicon is contaminated. It is associated with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War. As bread goes with butter, nuclear goes with warhead.

In most of our minds, nuclear signifies death and destruction on a monumental scale. If not warheads, missiles and bombs, the word nuclear conjures up images of accidents, leaks, fallout and horrendously deformed babies.

But this is only half the story, and while we shouldn’t dismiss concerns about safety, we should also open our minds to the possibility that nuclear power is part of the energy solution, not part of the problem.

For example, countries with the highest environmental standards in Europe, such as Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France and Germany rely significantly – and in France’s case overwhelmingly – on nuclear power.

These are not irresponsible countries that would willingly put their citizens at risk. Indeed, there has never been an accident in any of these countries.

There has also, despite all the hype, never been a nuclear accident in Britain.

In fact, according to Professor Robert Winston, the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that had its annual bash in Dublin last week, “more deaths resulted from Markham Main [a Yorkshire colliery] than all the accidents and power stations put together, including Chernobyl”.

Most scientists agree with Winston.

Nuclear power is safe and, when reactors are well maintained and standards are high, nuclear power has proved itself to be one of the safest ways to generate energy.

Another argument in support of nuclear power is that it is environmentally much sounder than burning stuff. If we are to achieve significant reduction in carbon emissions and maintain our lifestyles, nuclear power is an obvious candidate.

It is considerably cleaner than fossil fuel and much less damaging to the environment. We harm our environment more from burning peat in Ireland than we would if we had a nuclear power station heating every home in the country.

Internationally, the planet would be a much cleaner place if large countries like China, India and Iran used nuclear power exclusively, rather than burning coal.

With respect to global warming and environmental degradation, others have made the argument that, even in the worst case scenario, the impact of a nuclear accident is localised, whereas the impact of global warming and air pollution from burning fossil fuels affects the whole planet. This seems harsh, but it is true.

Even figures from Chernobyl bear this out. In the 19 years since the accident, 4,000 people have died. In contrast, each year respiratory disease that results directly from coal-based air pollution kills many more.

In terms of nuclear waste and decommissioning older nuclear plants, Finland and Sweden are introducing technical solutions that satisfy most of the domestic opposition to nuclear power. It is fair to say, given their environmental records, that, if it is good enough for the Scandinavians, it should be good enough for us.

The points above could be termed the �it’s not as bad as you think’ arguments in support of putting nuclear power back on the table. While they may not persuade everyone, they are at least an antidote to the blanket hysteria that surrounds the N word.

The other arguments are simply the �we have no alternative’ position. Oil is running out. The regimes that control oil are becoming increasingly unstable and might not last the shock of running out of black gold. So supplies might be unstable even before it runs out.

Also the price of oil will rise prohibitively, so some other form of energy must be found.

The other �no alternative’ argument is the simple contention that nuclear power, counterintuitive as it may sound, is environmentally friendly. Either we go nuclear or we risk climate change on a devastating scale. To reduce carbon emissions, either we switch to nuclear power in some form or we change our entire consumer-driven society and its growth-based economic benchmarks.

Maybe, in an environmentally compromised future, a contracting economy will be regarded as the objective of government policy, but, for the moment, the obsession with growth reigns, and with it, the compulsive desire for energy.

While there is no doubt that concerns about nuclear energy are real, they will not be made clearer by regarding nuclear power as heresy. In Ireland, we need to explore every avenue and close the door to none.

In 2020, there is every possibility that we will be a nuclear state and, if not, we will definitely be importing nuclear energy from elsewhere. We might as well start discussing this eventuality now.


  1. Sam

    I agree that nuclear power may be an environmentally
    friendly solution to our energy needs but the Irish people
    are not ready for a debate now and will not be for a long
    time. It’s like drug legalisation, politians will not
    touch it.

  2. G Duffy

    It is time we started to trust “hard evidence” rather
    than “hysteria” in dealing with issues such as nuclear
    power, incinerators, mobile phone masts, water fluoridation
    etc…

  3. Fergal

    The treehuggers will never allow the nuclear option in
    Ireland until it is too late and we are all suffering
    blackouts and sitting in the dark. It is worth noting what
    the market price of the raw fuel of the nuclear industry
    (uranium)is telling us. It has tripled in the last few
    years and is set to continue its climb with all the nuclear
    plants being built by the Chinese et al. The world is
    slowly moving back to the nuclear option.

  4. Willster

    And how long until uranium runs out? Then what?

  5. Paul Rux, Ph.D.

    Perhaps I reflect American anxiety, but nuclear plants are
    vulnerable to terrorists, at least that is the fear here.

  6. Adrian Coyle

    Nuclear generator management has to be guaranteed failsafe
    with systems managed for several generations to come,
    overseeing the safe degradation of the dangerous waste.

    People with short term vested interests want the cheap
    power now and are in no position to honour the very long
    term guarantees required by present and future generations.

    To err is to be human and sometimes plain evil manifests
    itself in humanity.

    Briefly looking back over history politically stable
    countries on occasion become violently unstable.
    e.g. prior to the Shah being overthrown in Iran there was
    no reason for the Iran Iraq region not to be safely
    overseeing a nuclear power network. Lest we forget there
    was civil war on our island not so long ago, and a rather
    large world war or two within the last gereration or three.

    In addition to unexpected politcal or social breakdown
    maybe an unexpected natural disaster may lead to a
    radioactive mess. A tsunami, a powerful tornado an
    unforeseen flood or category 5 storm per chance.

    Lets take another look at free natural energy, sun wind
    wave and tide power. Necessity is the mother of invention
    and I prefer my children with one head and two eyes.
    (Maybe if we use all that energy up the earth will stop
    spinning around the sun – when it does give me a call!)

    Regards adriancoyle098@hotmail.com

  7. Paul

    David states that there has never been a nuclear accident
    in Britain. Clearly he is unaware of the Windscale accident
    (or disaster as it is also known) which occurred in October
    1957.
    This accident resulted in large amounts of radioactive
    material falling across Britain and Ireland.

  8. Chris Murray

    The emotional, pie-in-the-sky nuclear plant huggers never
    learn.

    Using Irish tax-payers money, they abuse their position on
    State TV to whinge about an alleged inability to discuss
    the issues and to rehash stale “Too cheap to meter”
    and “Without nuclear power, we’ll all die in the dark!”
    arguments from the 60′s and 70′s. The lie is peddled that
    nuclear power has only caused a few thousand deaths. In
    spite of the evidence, the ludicrous claim that “Nuclear
    power is safe” is parroted. The terrorist threat is
    ignored. The increased undemocratic concentrations of money
    and power are ignored. The absolute inevitability of Peak
    Uranium is ignored. The equal or greater happiness of Third
    World people, once they have a basic level of security and
    control over their lives, and the obvious implications of
    this for OUR precious “lifestyle” (what’s it all for then,
    this thousand flavours of ice-cream and cake?), is
    ignored.

    Having blithely contributed hugely all their lives to
    Climate Catastrophe, the prospect of Peak Oil causes these
    irrational folk to suddenly break out in a rash of fake
    environmental concern.

    Some sleight of mind is introduced with Robert Winston’s
    pseado-scientific trickery…..

    ‘In fact, according to Professor Robert Winston, the
    president of the British Association for the Advancement of
    Science that had its annual bash in Dublin last week, “more
    deaths resulted from Markham Main [a Yorkshire colliery]
    than all the accidents and power stations put together,
    including Chernobyl”.
    Most scientists agree with Winston.’

    I might agree with Winston too. But there are lies, damn
    lies and statistics, and I’d also ask if Winston and
    McWilliams ever heard of comparing like with like? How many
    deaths resulted from Uranium mining? More than from Markham
    Main perhaps? How many have resulted and will result from
    the nuclear waste already generated, never mind from the
    colossal increase Polyanna McWilliams calls for? Compare
    the total deaths, including projected future deaths, from
    nuclear power per unit of energy generated with the total
    deaths from coal mining per unit generated and we might
    begin to have an adult discussion (McWilliams is supposed
    to be an economist).

    With more sleight of mind, those who oppose nuclear power
    on perfectly scientific, logical and rational grounds are
    dismissed as not being “open-minded”, while McWilliams, who
    babbles that we must “maintain our lifestyles” even when
    that is shown to be wrecking the planet, presumably regards
    himself as a model of cool objectivity.

    “In Ireland, we need to explore every avenue and close the
    door to none”, McWilliams declares. Fine, open-minded
    sentiments. Except in the previous paragraph he had also
    declared “the obsession with growth reigns, and with it,
    the compulsive desire for energy”. Open and shut case. Door
    slammed firmly on any discussion there. We want growth and
    energy, therefore we gotta have growth and energy. The
    logic of the addict. So much for exploring every avenue.

    The main problem with the nuclear nuts is their absolute
    refusal to face up to even any discussion of the need for
    meaningful change in the way wealth and power are defined,
    generated and distributed.

    Like spoilt brats, they regard “our” (speak for yourself,
    David) “insatiable desire for energy” and our mania for
    flying around the world at the drop of a hat (while half
    the world lives on a fraction of what we throw away) as a
    sacred right, while lecturing others on the need to “grow
    up”.

    But we beat them before and we’ll beat ‘em again.

    Best wishes,

    Chris Murray.

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