Reacting Out: Should Ireland Consider Nuclear Energy?

Deputy Current Affairs Editor Stephen Moynihan tackles the issue of Nuclear Energy in Ireland – is it viable given the developments in technology or are there simply too many strings attached for Ireland to consider? 

The discussion around nuclear energy as a viable, alternative clean energy source is one that undoubtedly turns heads, but with the mitigation of environmental degradation and climate breakdown becoming increasingly urgent, many are wondering if it could be a solution to Ireland’s demands for energy.

In its most basic terms, nuclear energy works by breaking up tiny particles of radioactive elements in a process called fission. When these particles break up, energy is released, and a chain reaction occurs causing the break-up of other atoms, creating massive amounts of energy. No greenhouse gases are emitted – meaning that nuclear energy does not directly contribute to a warming planet.

However, many people remain wary; understandably so. Nuclear power-related mishaps have received great amounts of attention in the media in recent decades. These range from the Chernobyl Disaster of 1986, to the Fukushima Disaster of 2011 which followed a major earthquake. Closer to home, concerns have been raised with the proximity of the Sellafield nuclear site in north-west England, along with the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management agency examining the potential to store nuclear waste in Northern Ireland. However, with the Irish government committed to a 7% per annum reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, is it time that nuclear energy is considered?

That is a question which Dr. Paul Deane, of UCC’s School of Engineering, has been grappling with. In a recently published article with the Environmental Research Institute, he points to ‘small modular nuclear reactors’ (SMNRs) as a potential solution to the issue of producing clean energy when weather conditions mean solar or wind-powered systems are underproducing.

“We know we can’t have a stable and secure energy system if we fully rely on wind energy. Current research from UCC suggests that we do need to continue with wind, but we need to consider other options”, he tells Motley

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

According to Dr. Deane, SMNRs can be as little as ¼ the size of traditional reactors, meaning they make more economic sense for a country our size. These also feature what is known as “passive safety”, meaning that they shut down automatically when there is a problem. This is in contrast with traditional reactors, which were designed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when safety standards were not as stringent, and are more liable to human error.

Although not yet commercially available, SMNR trials are underway in Canada, Argentina, Russia and the US. Dr. Deane argues that if these trials lead to a technological breakthrough in the next five-to-ten years, then Ireland should discuss the viability of its use.

A significant barrier to this, however, is the Energy Regulation Act 1999, which prohibits “the use of nuclear fission for the generation of electricity”. However, it places no constraint on Ireland’s ability to import nuclear energy, and therefore allows us to outsource the hazards of nuclear energy whilst also reaping the benefits, effectively free-riding on risks taken by jurisdictions producing nuclear energy.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Whilst this may seem like a positive, it leaves us exposed to issues outside of our borders, and beyond our control. This, Dr. Deane argues, is similar to Ireland’s policy on oil and gas exploration. “Ireland doesn’t tend to be good at energy security, we ban oil and gas exploration yet still rely on foreign imports from this source. This is something we need to get better at”. This issue takes on extra importance when you consider that a recent EirGrid report warned that Ireland’s electricity surplus is set to decrease substantially towards 2030, potentially turning into a deficit.

These issues aren’t going to disappear. A mature debate about our future energy needs must commence to ensure that we can have a secure and stable energy system whilst also playing our part in mitigating the climate emergency.

If nuclear energy can play a role in this, then it should be given real consideration.