Nuclear power, toted by some as a “zero-emission clean energy source”, has somewhat of a dirty reputation in Ireland.
The State is one of a few in the world with a ban on nuclear power for electricity generation, and there is little mention of the energy source in Irish plans to tackle the climate crisis.
However, Ireland is not currently on track to meet its climate targets – with energy consumption responsible for the lion's share of the country's emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that under a best-case scenario of implementing the Government's 2019 Climate Action Plan, Ireland’s 2030 emissions will be 24 per cent lower than 2018 levels – rather than the targeted cut of 51 per cent.
The hard-line environmental stance of the anti-nuclear stance is outdated, and it's a remnant of a different debate
Amid this struggle towards climate targets, a group of professionals working in the nuclear power industry and related fields say the technology is Ireland’s “fastest, cheapest and guaranteed route” to net zero emissions – but it is an option no one is considering.
“I feel like the hard-line environmental stance of the anti-nuclear stance is outdated, and it's a remnant of a different debate,” says Sarah Cullen, co-founder of the group 18for0.
“Nuclear is not ideal. It's not my ideal technology, I'm not a lobbyist for nuclear... I'm not paid by them to say anything.
“You still have associated emissions from the construction... it doesn't ramp up and down as fast as certain fossil fuel plants... but right now I can't help but look at it and go, we have a massive problem now. We have a climate emergency now.”
The 18for0 group says there is currently “no credible plan” to get Ireland to its climate target of net zero emissions by 2050, and no clear path to weaning the country off fossil fuels.
Amid warnings from national grid operator EirGrid of looming electricity shortages, solutions proposed include keeping coal- and oil-burning generators open beyond their scheduled closing dates in 2023 and 2025, or alternatively building modern gas-fired generators which can be used at times when wind-generated renewable electricity is not available.
“It's not currently... economically feasible or viable in any way to have a grid that's 100 per cent renewables. It's because you can't turn on and off the wind, you can't turn on and off the sun,” Ms Cullen, who became interested in nuclear power while studying a masters in Energy Systems Engineering, says.
“We think that there are alternatives there [to fossil fuels], and the Government hasn't even looked into them.”
With the State planning to achieve 70 per cent electricity from renewables by 2030, 18for0 says that adding 18 per cent nuclear to this energy mix — with the remainder a mix of technologies such as interconnection and storage — would eliminate fossil fuel and fully decarbonise the power sector by 2037.
The group says the introduction of nuclear power could be part of Ireland’s “just transition,” directly providing 1,300 high-skilled long-term jobs in addition to a further 4,000 “ancillary” jobs, according to its own research.
Ms Cullen estimates the earliest Ireland could have an operational nuclear plant would be 2037, if legislation to legalise the technology was passed, public debate was had and development started promptly.
Could there be advances in renewables and storage technology in the meantime that should deter investment in nuclear power? “It would be a gamble to say, maybe in 15 years, someone will have had a breakthrough,” Ms Cullen responds.
She also rejects the idea that introducing nuclear power could be akin to investing in a “twin evil” to fossil fuels, saying the crucial difference lies in the fact that nuclear power generation does not produce carbon emissions.
“A lot of the dialogue about nuclear in Ireland is negative, whereas really when you look at it, it's such a positive thing that could really help us,” Ms Cullen says.
“At the very least we should be looking into it. 18for0 is only advocating that the Government does their own study, and sees for themselves... they're not even looking into it, and I feel like that's a massive disservice to Irish people...
“Irish people suffer health effects and die from burning more fossil fuels, we pay higher electricity prices because the gas price is so unstable, and we're risking power cuts and this winter we will likely see power cuts, as a result of the Government's policy.”
On the issue of nuclear waste, Ms Cullen says waste has been “safely managed for decades” by countries around the world.
“When a nuclear power plant is getting built, it has to have detailed plans for how exactly it will be disposed and what will happen to every single component in it. I wish every energy system was like that,” she says.
“If 18 per cent of our power came from nuclear, over the lifespan of those nuclear reactors, its waste would fit into an area the size of a basketball arena.”
Ms Cullen says that following nuclear accidents, such as the highly-publicised Chernobyl disaster, “such tight legislation was put in place around the nuclear industry, that actually now nuclear has... one of the best safety records of a lot of energy sectors.”
If we want to use it to address the climate crisis, it's just not going to get us there in time
However, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, Deirdre Duff, says the technology “just won’t get us there in time.”
The environmentalist group, which maintains an anti-nuclear stance, says that putting aside the “risks involved, medical issues, disposing of the waste”, Ireland must cut its emissions sooner than the introduction of nuclear power will allow.
“Even if nuclear was to work as a backup, at the very earliest we wouldn't be getting it online in time. So, we would need another backup in the meantime,” Ms Duff says.
“The crucial period is the next five years, the next 10 years, how can we get our emissions down quick enough to avoid the tipping points.
“If we want to use it to address the climate crisis, it's just not going to get us there in time, and we’ve a much better bet with renewables and also with energy efficiency measures.”
Where do we store the waste, who's going to volunteer to have that in their backyard?
Ms Duff says it is “much shorter-term” – and less controversial – solutions like focusing on energy efficiency and retrofitting homes “that will get us out of this problem quick enough.”
“At the moment [nuclear power is] illegal in Ireland, and so you'd have to change the law, so just the political capital alone that you'd need... I just couldn't see three successive governments staying in power in order to get nuclear through,” she says.
“And then where do we store the waste, who's going to volunteer to have that in their backyard?”
Ms Duff says “technology is coming on in absolute leaps and bounds” when it comes to both storing renewable energy and connecting with other grids in Europe.
In the future Friends of the Earth envisages “a much more flexible” energy system “that when there's loads of wind blowing in Ireland we can be selling energy to Europe, and then vice versa,” she says.