Nuclear Strikes Back

Despite internal disagreement, the EU recently announced that it is proposing to classify energy from nuclear power as green. If a majority of member states back it, it will become EU law in 2023. Dermot McNally takes a look at the arguments involved and the effect this might might have on Ireland.

A Low Carbon Energy Source
So why are the EU proposing to move nuclear out of the “non green” sources of energy” into the “green sources” classification? Well, some nations have had a very successful experience of nuclear energy generation – France being one such nation. 70% of their power comes from nuclear at present and they want this to continue into the future. The French and others want nuclear added to the EU green energy classification to enable investment in new nuclear plants. The “pro-nuclear” lobby in France are happy with the level of risk that nuclear plants represent. They say that France is proof that nuclear can be used safely and effectively without the accidents that have occurred elsewhere. Finally and most critically, they say that like solar and wind, nuclear allows the generation of low carbon energy (unlike power from fossil fuels); something which many, including the British Government also believe. In 2020, 13 European Nations had operational nuclear reactors. The nuclear question isn’t confined to Europe: many nations around the world are currently developing small reactors.

Fear is Stopping Progress
They say that nuclear energy generation ambitions shouldn’t be halted based on fear of nuclear alone and they believe that the public doesn’t fully understand how much nuclear technology has improved in recent decades. They say that although the infamous disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima (Japan) caused deaths and other longer term health problems, that the scale of risk to human health has been overblown. They present persuasive data that shows that risk is inherent with many energy generation sources: for instance people living in large cities face more day to day risk from air pollution than the risk to those who were exposed to radiation at either Chernobyl or Fukushima. They also argue that people mix up the genuine dangers that exist with nuclear weapons with the overwhelming benefits that nuclear power offers.

The EU Position
The EU has clarified that their classification of energy sources has been done on a complete life cycle basis, i.e. by taking into account all material and energy consumed in the manufacture, installation and decommissioning of each new energy source. On this basis they claim that when the pro’s and con’s of existing “green energy sources” are weighed up, that nuclear is equally advantageous in environmental terms. For instance since the output of solar and wind are tied to weather, large battery systems will be needed to enable energy storage. These battery systems are as yet in their infancy, expensive and dirty to produce. Furthermore the creation of wind and solar farms on a vast scale have huge environmental side effects (in terms of mining of precious metals, fabrication, damage to wildlife and lack of clear recycling possibilities). If solar and wind were to be our only sources of power we would need to allocate a vast amount of space to that purpose; area that would no longer be available for farming, forestry etc. So in a nutshell all energy sources have downsides and the EU are saying that the downsides of nuclear are outweighed by the upsides (especially it’s ability to produce constant energy with low carbon emissions).

No To Nuclear
But the German and the Austrian governments are not convinced; the German’s are closing nuclear plants and the Austrian Environment Minister denounced nuclear power as “an energy of the past” that was “too expensive and too slow” to combat climate change. For many critics of nuclear, the risk of accidents is too great and the challenge in safely storing nuclear waste for centuries to come is a deal breaker in their evaluations. Many environmentalists point to the costs: renewable energy sources are simply cheaper to run they argue. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are both against it and argue that Nuclear emits more CO2 than gas powered energy production when full life cycle carbon is truly considered. The fear of the proliferation of nuclear weapons remains central to other arguments against nuclear – enriched uranium is used in the manufacture of nuclear bombs and if a single bomb were used in attack the results would be devastating. These are also hugely compelling arguments.

Other Opinions on Nuclear
A growing number of respected environmental commentators and energy analysts are now saying we simply need nuclear power to cut carbon quickly and limit the worst effects of climate change. Renowned Guardian journalist George Monbiot thinks that nuclear is a necessary evil and our own Irish commentator John Gibbons of has similar views saying that “science doesn’t support our anti-nuclear views“. Surprising to some was the decision by the Irish Workers Party in December 2021 to vote in favour of the development of nuclear power in Ireland.

However nuclear power plants are currently prohibited in Ireland and the Government has indicated that it has no intention of changing this position. The Irish public is surprisingly positive about it: an opinion poll carried out in Autumn 2021 noted an even split (43% v 43%) of proponents and opponents to nuclear power generation in Ireland with the remaining 15% of those surveyed unsure which way to go. At present 5 Irish MEP’s intend to vote against the reclassification of nuclear at EU level. Sinn Féin denounced it as greenwashing.

An “Irish Solution” to Nuclear Energy?
Minister Eamon Ryan of the Green Party refused to rule out nuclear energy as he believes the climate crisis is so severe but equally didn’t think it was financially viable for Ireland. The cold truth is this: Ireland is already a user of nuclear power albeit power imported via the undersea interconnector: the overall amount is low at 1% but the ability to import it is critical at times when our domestic energy generation is low. So at present we need the nuclear capability that the interconnector offers us.

So while some Irish politicians seem quick to denounce nuclear, none that I can find have articulated a policy that would see us explore the possibility of ending the importation of nuclear via the interconnector. A convenient enough political approach to adopt and one that is likely to remain the practical reality in Ireland for decades to come: we won’t generate our own nuclear power but we will continue to import it when needed.

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