April 5, 2006

Time to discuss our nuclear option, without a meltdown

Posted in Sunday Business Post ·
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In the summer of 1978, every head on our road made for Wexford. A procession of sleeping bags, flagons, Rizzlas, eight-hole docs, Lord Anthony anoraks left Dun Laoghaire.

Every teenager worth their salt was on a bus, a train, a Hiace van or stuffed into a packed Fiat Mirafiori. We – the baby brothers – looked on enviously, wishing we were big and cool.

While the mothers prepared for the Pope’s visit in September, the teenagers made for Carnsore Point in August to protest, fornicate and drink inordinate amounts of cider.

The Carnsore Point anti-nuclear festival worked. The government abandoned its plans for a nuclear reactor, the price of oil fell from its 1979 peak, Chernobyl exploded and the world forgot about nuclear power.

This week, nuclear was back in the news. Sellafield is apparently about to be sold off to private investors, yesterday forfas published a report reiterating how dependent we are on oil and the previous day, Australia signed a deal with China guaranteeing the communist regime access to uranium. Of all the announcements, the latter is the most important.

China is trying to secure supplies to satisfy its enormous demand for energy. It is highly dependent on foreign energy supplies to keep its industry going and has rekindled its nuclear programme to diversify away from oil.

The politburo realise that world oil production will soon peak and the lesson it takes from America’s invasion of Iraq, is that the US is involved in a long-term, geo-political struggle for resources. As long as the US remains edgy about China’s coming economic dominance, China will try to avoid a direct conflict with Washington over energy.

Chinese state companies are today buying significant shareholdings in many quoted oil and gas companies, while at the same time, doing national deals with Russia, Iran and Sudan. However, they are also focusing on nuclear power now in a major way. And they are not alone.

The big development in energy circles is the rebirth of nuclear. It is highly likely that Tony Blair will announce the first expansion in Britain’s nuclear programme in two decades over the coming weeks. Finland, has announced a new nuclear roll-out, while France continues to bask in the security that it has weaned itself off oil dependency by generating up to 80pc of its electricity requirements with nuclear power.

A number of global events have caused this profound, once-in-a-generation change. First, the war in Iraq has not just confirmed that America wants to win a resource war and it is prepared to use its “hard power” as well as traditional “soft power”. Second, by being exposed militarily in Iraq, the myth of American pre-eminence has been punctured.

This has emboldened regimes like Iran. Third, by acting like a bully, the US has legitimised the rule of Hugo Chavez – the unsurprisingly anti-Gringo President of Venezuela. (Venezuela provides America with 15pc of its daily oil needs.) These events, have led oil-importing countries to reassess the “stability” of their oil supplies.

This insecurity has driven the price of oil up 300pc in four years.
In tandem with geo-political upheavals, there has been the geological realisation that the peak in global oil production is almost upon us.

This (as was touched on in last week’s column) has profound implication for the way we live today. (For those interested there is a major conference on peak oil tonight in the Mansion House Dublin at 7.30pm www.energyfutures.ie)

Finally, (and quite apart from the geo-political tremors felt around the world) there is the trifling issue of global warming to concern us. The more fossil fuels burnt, the worse it will get and Ireland already far exceeds our emission targets.

So what’s the solution to these problems? Well, clearly the rebirth of nuclear is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Don’t take my word for it, look at the price of uranium.

Uranium has soared from $8/lb to above $40/lb in the past four years. This means that the financial markets are pricing in a sea-change in the world’s attitude to nuclear power. In short, we are on the cuspof a nuclear renaissance.

Over the past month, there has been much evidence of this resurgence. George Bush’s visit to India in March did not get much coverage here, yet it gave us a glimpse of the world’s nuclear future. Bush offered India American nuclear technical know-how something that had been denied India since it refused to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

He also offered India fresh uranium supplies. In response, Russia announced that it would invest $10bn into its own uranium industry and make its fuel available to India also.

And yesterday, Australia reacted by signing a uranium deal with China. All the while, stocks of nuclear-related industries are going through the roof.

So what about Ireland, where do we stand? What are we in Ireland going to do, if the world goes nuclear? Are we going to sit, self-regardingly from the sidelines and “tut tut” while we import nuclear powered electricity from the British grid?

Are we going to hold our noses while others get on with the dirty business of taking responsibility?

It seems fair to suggest that we will do nothing, preferring entrenched positions to transparent debate. Ironically, this attitude to crucial issues in Irish public debate – such as abortion and nuclear power – can be traced back to that summer of 1979 with the Pope’s visit and Carnsore.

For the religious Right, the Pope’s visit paved the way for the abortion referendum of 1983. Since then, abortion has become impossible to discuss in public without polarisation.

Politicians won’t touch it despite evidence that abortions are much more commonplace now than they were then.

Similarly, for the secular Left, Carnsore Point marked a victory over nuclear power in Ireland and it has also become impossible to debate in public.

Politicians will not touch it either despite evidence that new forms of energy are much more needed now than back in 1979. Equally, for many environmental secularists who might have open minds on abortion, anti-nuclear has also become an absolutist article of faith.

It is intriguing how similar both of the above positions actually are. Many sophisticated anti-nuclear advocates use science to bolster their case for the preservation of the planet, subscribe whole-heartedly to Darwinism and evolution and dismiss as irrational superstition, religious ideas like creationism and “intelligent design”.

For them the belief in God and some other-worldly power is as medieval as a belief in werewolves and goblins.

Yet, when it comes to nuclear power, they are prepared to dredge all sorts on non-scientific clap-trap and resort to the type of irrational, emotional scare-mongering that used to be the church’s prerogative.

As a result – like ghouls and banshees of old – we are afraid to talk about nuclear. Yet, the rest of the world is entertaining it. Is it time that Ireland revisited nuclear power?

Given the depletion of the world’s resources, geo-political concerns and the fact that carbon emissions are unsustainable, something has to be done. The problem will not disappear just by ignoring it. Nuclear power is a logical alternative.

For Ireland, it may not be the only alternative; but it is one of them. Let the debate begin.


  1. Seán

    Nuclear power great idea, provided its done right!
    Here is a very good discussion on wired about the merits of
    Nuclear power
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.02/nuclear.html

    Any debates about building nuclear power plants in this
    country need to take on board the following:

    1. Implementation
    - Design it to export power to Britain.
    - Proper planning (and get the Americans in to deliver it
    within budget)
    2. Safety culture
    - The lack of this in Sellafield is shocking and given our
    attitude to road safety in this country this needs to be
    paramount.
    3. Transmission network
    - There is no point spending billions on a nuclear plant, if
    a gale force wind knocks out half the country’s power lines.
    Our current transmission network has been identified as a
    bottleneck in the economic development of the west.
    4. Waste storage and disposal
    - No point having Wicklow glowing in the dark. :-)

    Knowing how we handle infrastructure projects
    - Old bones and stones will be found on the construction
    site that have to be painstakingly excavated.
    - People will object on the grounds that radiation is
    harmful to their health (Despite the fact that they have a
    mobile phone stuck to their head)
    - Project consultants will do very well.
    - The project will be years late.
    - The project will cost 20 billion instead of the projected
    10 billion.
    - So much money will be wasted that it will only deliver 60%
    of the countries electricity needs.

  2. kennedy connolly

    It can be done safely, but you can never trust big
    businesses to do anything by the book. Cost-cutting will
    ultimately compromise safety.

  3. kennedy connolly

    It can be done safely, but you can never trust big
    businesses to do anything by the book. Cost-cutting will
    ultimately compromise safety.

  4. Pete

    Having a serious debate about building a nuclear power
    station in Ireland will be political suicide for those
    involved, so it won’t happen, until voters actually see a
    problem with electricity supply. When their ESB bills
    rocket due to rising oil and gas prices, and their
    employer moves to a country with cheaper electricity,
    nuclear power will start looking attractive, but not
    before. In the meantime, we’ll probably just import more
    and more electricity from nuclear stations in UK.

    I might be wrong about voter sentiment to nuclear power
    being negative. My generation were brought up with
    Hiroshima not yet ancient history, we lived through the
    cold war with the threat of nuclear annilation hanging
    over us, and there was a steady stream of accidents at
    nuclear power stations around the world, culminating in
    Chernobyl. The 18-year-old voters of today haven’t lived
    though all that, so they may not have the primeval fear of
    all things nuclear that the my generation did. I don’t
    know any to ask.

  5. Seán

    It can be done safely, but you can never trust big
    businesses to do anything by the book. Cost-cutting will
    ultimately compromise safety.

    You can’t trust the government departments either (Observe
    presently how they offload the blame on consultants)

    The simple solution is to make the management financially
    responsible for safety by docking their income for any
    safety lapses or fraud, and do it on a increasing scale for
    any repeated breaches. This will concentrate their minds
    wonderfully.

    When their ESB bills rocket due to rising oil and gas
    prices, and their employer moves to a country with cheaper
    electricity, nuclear power will start looking attractive,
    but not before

    Nuclear power will not be cheap, even when oil becomes more
    expensive.
    Speaking of expensive energy has anyone noticed that
    inflation has gone up massively since the beginning of the
    year. From personal experience I reckon we are at over 6.5%
    inflation. (energy & food in particular)

  6. Duncan

    Certainly, nuclear power needs to be looked at – but
    doesn’t the construction of a nuclear plant require the
    availability of the oil and gas that we’d seek to replace
    it with? How long into an oil depleted future will it be
    possible to build, maintain and safely dismantle a nuclear
    power plant, never mind transporting and storing the waste
    it produces? Without oil driven machinery, how will we
    mine and transport the uranium required to fuel a nuclear
    power station? And also, while nuclear power is grand for
    producing electricity, so it could help with our rail
    system, it won’t resolve the issue of cars and road
    transport generally. So nuclear power is an answer, but
    not to most of the questions we need answering over the
    medium to long term.

  7. jj

    i think nuclear is my very very very last option for
    energy, purley for the fact we can never be certain that
    our society can be secure in a 100 years let alone 250,000
    years (the lenth of time the nuclear station would have to
    be monitored)

    who knows what will be happening in a 100 years?? nuclear
    works only only on the presumption of no war or strife for
    1000′s of years. which is hopefull at best

  8. Dan Hayes

    David & Co.:

    One thing the people in Ireland are free of are
    prevarications about the utility of solar power. The Irish
    weather takes care of that particular canard! But I suppose
    you are saddled with the economic fairy tale of wind
    power.So you are only batting 500 on the prevarication
    scale, while we in the States are batting 1000.

    I learned from your essay that the historical demise of
    nuclear power in Ireland can be attributed to the proto-
    Hippies. And these are the boys (and girls) who have since
    ascended into power and are now running the show in
    Ireland. How droll!

    Thanks for you knowledgeable and perceptive commentary. Now
    let the debate begin without the blathering of the now
    aging hippies and their intellectual progeny.

  9. Pat McCarten

    Over 30 million people would have died from the chernoble
    disaster, if the core hit cooling water, creating a massive
    expolsion and contaminating a vast area. It was a pray and
    wait moment for the sand dumping to work.

    Anyone who has seen the BBC ‘Surviving Disaster’ :
    Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, will soon change thier positive
    view of nuclear power! I did.

    We have nuclear slipups all the time in the UK…
    DOUNREAY HAS SPRUNG A LEAK.
    19/03/06

    An old nuclear waste store at Dounreay on the northern
    coast of Scotland in Caithness has sprung a leak and
    contaminated the ground with radioactivity.

  10. Colm O Cionnaith

    Hi David,

    re: this week’s article in the Independent, I would agree
    with most of the sentiments expressed and found it very
    witty and insightful in general. However, I’m surprised
    that a man of your intellect would consider “Intelligent
    Design” a religious belief when, if you took the time to
    teeth out the issue (www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org)you
    would clearly see that it is based on Science.

    Disappointed that you would seem to subscribe to the
    fashion among some media commentators to lump Intelligent
    Design in with Creationism in an apparent attempt to
    discredit it. Hoping that this is just temporary ignorance
    and not an agenda that you have. Reality is that many
    Scientists are questioning Evolution and are not put off by
    the astounding hubris of Dawkins and his like who refuse to
    even debate the issue.

    Look forward to more informed opinions from you in future
    on this issue, regards, Colm.

  11. Declan

    Dear David,
    I’m normally in full agreement with you on most of your
    topics. BUT with this one, I whole heartedly disagree that
    Nuclear should be up for discussion.
    I have witnessed first hand the effects of Chernobyl! I
    have witnessed how Nuclear power accident can cripple and
    distroy the fabric of a country and society.
    I understand that newer technologies are probably safer BUT
    accidents do happen and if they do, there is NO second
    chance.
    Is this a risk you are willing to take? It not the same as
    a Nick Leeson making a trading mistake and breaking a bank.
    It goes deeper than, its repercussions would resonated for
    centuries.

    It not a risk I would be willing to take as there is
    absolutely no need for Nuclear power in our country.

    We have an abundance of natural renewable resources that
    can be very easily tapped into! Wind power, we have the
    largest wind farm in the world being constructed of the
    East Coast of the Country.

    We NEED more funding in this area!!!Its a free energy source
    We have an abundance of Wave power why not tap into! Why is
    this not an option!!!!

    We are abandoning our sugar plants at at time when sugar
    commodities are trading at an all time high!
    Sugar resources has tightened because of the demand for
    ethonal as sugar is vital in the production of
    ethanol/alcohol! This is a viable substitution for petrol!

    We have also the possibilty to use Methane, a waste bi
    product which is easily accessed through landfills and farm
    yards etc

    So, I don’t see why we should even contemplate the use of
    Nuclear Fuels, given the potential future damage it could
    cause. Take a trip to Belarus and see how chernobyl has
    affected their society.
    You don’t need to go that far to see the affects of Nuclear
    power. Is it not true that the Irish Sea is one of the most
    polluted seas in the world as a result of Sellafield, what
    is this doing to us and our families.

    http://www.american.edu/TED/sella.htm

    David, I get the impression that you are being heavily
    influenced by common thinking! Possibily a group think
    scenario, some commetator suggests that Nuclear is an
    option and you are saying why not.

    There is other solutions that are safer and cleaner!!

    By the way where do you suggest we dump the wasted/used
    nuclear fuels? Do we dump them at sea like other nations?
    Nobody ever mentions the fact that Nuclear power does
    generate toxic waste!
    THERE ARE NUMEROUS OTHER WAYS.
    There is not enough political will to sort this out!

    We have turned around this country from a third world
    economy to a star performing economy. Surely we could lead
    the way on clean green energy for the future.

  12. SeanO

    Colm,

    sounds like you need to do some research of your own, a good
    place to start would be to read the the judgement in the
    dover “ID” trial
    http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/051220_kitzmiller_342.pdf

    ID has zero scientific merit, not one of it’s ideas has
    stood up to scrutiny. Name a single paper published in a
    scientific peer review journal?

  13. laura

    Fair points made, but to be honest you fail to point out
    the extend of the failure which the introduction of natural
    gas drilling has been in Ireland. Back in 2002 I was
    working for the Franco-American conglomerate that was
    responsible for designing and building the now notorious
    Seven Heads gas rig. As few people realise, this field was
    at the time touted as Ireland’s answer to the obvious
    energy crisis which Ireland faced. Since the 1980s and the
    spread of has use in Ireland, we’ve gone from providing 80%
    of our gas used to probably 20% or less. Or so
    presentations made to non-oilfield staff told us.
    Basically, Ireland’s ability to drill enough gas for her
    own use was rapidly diminishing. So company XXX went ahead
    and laid the pipelines and drilled the rig, but the gas was
    not the “unusually pure” gas that it had initially appeared
    to be. So within 3 years the owning company’s shares
    collapsed, much of it on the back of the Seven Heads mess,
    and it was sold to Marathon – see
    http://www.oilvoice.com/Ramco_Sells_its_Interest_in_the_Seve
    n_Heads_Gas_Field_to_Mar/5654.htm. This has led to
    increased cynicism regarding prospects in the Corrib field
    and the Porcupine Basin (which are likely to be equally
    exaggerated – or simply not taking into account the
    difficulty of drilling in the conditions which nature gave
    us). So what was to “save” Ireland’s energy problem has in
    fact done little to change the situation. I suspect
    nuclear power would be equally problematic and as much of
    failure, and given the current crisis of safety in the
    building industry, probably also extremely dangerous.

    Having said that it certainly does need to be discussed as
    an option. But given the nature of parish pump politics no
    politican worth his/her salt is going to dare risk putting
    a power station in his/her constituency. (Unless of course
    you shove it in Ivor Callely, Michael Lowry or Ray Burke’s
    constituencys, who are clearly quite happy to be taken for
    a ride by their representatives given their history of rel-
    electing politicans with clearly questionable records).

    In the meantime we have a huge problem: too much dependency
    on oil, the most car-dependent nation in the EU and a
    pitiful public transport system 50 years behind the
    supposedly modern economy. I am consistently amused at the
    logic which places large factories in poorly serviced
    places like Carraigtohill and Little Island in East Cork
    with a large workforce of people on “flexible” shifts
    starting at 7am and finishing sometimes at 1am for public
    transport which either doesn’t exist, doesn’t fit the
    requirements of workers/employers or is too far away for
    workers. At the same time the vast majority of Irish towns
    are becoming “edge cities” where all the development
    happens on the edge – and even in Dublin one of the main
    triggers for assumed long commuting patterns is in fact the
    fact that these workers are working in places like Bray,
    Sandyford, Leixlip, Swords and Blanchardstown and so are
    NOT in fact commuting to the city but to the outer
    suburbs. For example driving from Midleton to Cork (15
    miles) for a 9am city centre start is a painful 45 minute
    drive, but driving from Midleton to Little Island (10
    miles) is a painless 10 minute drive. This is driving many
    workers out further where its still easier to get around by
    car.

    Secondly there has been very little penalty for those
    totally dependent on the car. Parking is free for those
    working in edge city, tax on oil is significantly lower
    than in the UK (where petrol costs 15-20% more) and
    increasingly those who choose to drive are facilitated far
    more than those who don’t have a car or cannot drive. (For
    example the tax break on public transport tickets is
    awkward, inflexible and few employees will accomodate
    workers in using it).

    Finally, you forgot to mention the resistance to wind
    power – an excellent, clean resource which would work in a
    lot of Ireland. Many of the planned sites are deadlocked
    in planning permission stand-offs. Yet this is a fabulous
    resource that could easily provide a lot of power. Why is
    it resisted to such an extent?

  14. Conor Delaney

    Er Folks….what would we do with the Nuclear waste?
    Considering that no one would like to live near an
    incinerator (and they are not even dangerous), who is
    going live near a nucleur waste dump. Remember nuclear
    waste can’t been cleaned up or destroyed or exported….

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