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Is it time for Ireland to give nuclear power a chance?

Opinion: international efforts to combat climate change have seen many re-examine the role and future of nuclear power

By Dr Paul Deane, ERI, MaREI, School of Engineering 

Nuclear power produces low carbon electricity which means its contribution to global warming is much lower than fossil fuels. The golden age of nuclear was in the 1970s when successive oil crises drove deployment across the globe. France implemented a programme to get the bulk of its electricity from nuclear and witnessed a big reduction in the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Over the past three decades, challenges associated with social acceptability, cost over-runs, long construction times and nuclear waste have slowed or stalled the growth of nuclear power in many parts of the world. For many in western Europe, nuclear is associated with the Chernobyl disaster or the Fukushima accident and European governments are planning to phase out nuclear power in Germany, Switzerland and Spain.

But the trend is not the same across the world and countries such as China, India and Russia are building new nuclear plants. The appetite for power in these countries is immense.  For example, China needs to add the equivalent of today’s US power system to its electricity infrastructure by 2040 and doing this without nuclear is challenging.

Looking to the future, there is an international movement to develop new compact reactors called small modular nuclear reactors. The hope is that these advanced technologies will be safer, produce less waste, cost less and will be quicker to build. A number of trial units are under construction around the world and Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have recently taken steps towards deploying at least one such reactor as a demonstration project. Despite this, there is a major uncertainty as to when this technology will become commercially available around the world.

Ireland is one of a few countries in the world with a ban on nuclear power for electricity generation, though our power system is too small for a conventional large nuclear plant. All power plants need backup in case of a break down and so the proposed smaller designs make more sense because backup can be shared among a number of plants.

While advocates of nuclear power correctly point to the intrinsic safety of this new generation of smaller reactors, getting public support to buy into the technology will be challenging.  Energy policy has to be socially acceptable, politically supported and reflect the world we live in rather than the world we wished we lived in.

Social acceptance for new technologies is often linked to trust in institutions and governance.  According to international studies Ireland scores low in trust in institutions and has a poor international track record in delivering large infrastructure projects (pipelines, hospitals, overhead pylons). In Ireland, any nuclear technology would need strong public support.

From a technical perspective, the recent news that the Irish government plans to get 70% of electricity from renewables such as wind and solar by 2030 is an important step to clean up our energy system. To clarify, 70% of electricity is equivalent to about 14% of all our energy needs, electricity is one fifth of the energy we consume each day.

A challenge with weather driven power generation is how to deal with times when there is little wind or little sunshine. Options such as batteries, such as Tesla Power Wall are great at storing small amounts of electricity but the numbers required for a whole country is mind boggling.  About 14 million of these units would be required to store the electricity required in Ireland for just one day and if we stand back and look at all energy (including our heat and transport) this would be increased by a factor of 4 to 5.  We can also connect our power system to mainland Europe but our ongoing research in UCC suggests that while this helps, it may not be enough.

This is where firm sources of generation like nuclear or traditional power stations come into play. They can provide electricity on request and help other generation sources like wind and solar. This is not an argument against renewables: we need more renewables, but we also need to make sure our energy system is secure and reliable.

The prospect of a breakthrough in small nuclear reactors is exciting but uncertain. Waiting for new technologies to become commercially available is a poor strategy in terms of combatting climate change because it is the cumulative build-up of emissions that is driving global temperature increases so immediate action is required.

On the balance of evidence, the odds are stacked against nuclear power in Ireland. The technical challenges are large but maybe secondary to the public acceptance concerns. But climate change is a serious problem and we need to be looking at lots of solutions to stop it…even the ones we may not like. For Ireland, this means that if there is a breakthrough in nuclear technology, we should at least talk about it.