April 5, 2006
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.