Irish people should reconsider their opposition to nuclear power in order to tackle the climate crisis, a prominent environmental journalist has argued.
Although nuclear power stations are common across Europe, their use has always divided the environmental movement. Many have safety concerns, while others say that the planet is suffocating from man’s carbon emissions and drastic action must be taken.
Until recently John Gibbon would have placed himself in the former camp but he has recently undergone something of Damascene conversion on the issue:
“I would have come from the school that many people in Ireland were and that is basically that nuclear power is just too risky, just too dangerous,” he explained to The Pat Kenny Show.
“Obviously I think we all grew up under the nuclear cloud of Chernobyl back in the 80s and that would have affected my thinking on nuclear energy.”
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After he became an environmentalist he started crunching the numbers on how best to reduce carbon emissions. Increasingly concerned about the “gargantuan” nature of the task, he concluded that nuclear had to be part of the mix:
“At the moment it [our energy supply] remains heavily dependent on burning of fossil fuels,” he continued.
“And there’s a number of ways of decarbonising that and one of them is nuclear energy.
“So my view is that when you’re in a hole you’ve really got to look at all your options.”
On the question of safety, Mr Gibbon says only about 50 people have died because of nuclear power - far fewer than from other fuel sources.
“On the one side of the ledger, you have about 50 deaths from nuclear - obviously that’s 50 more than you’d like to have,” he added.
“On the other side of the ledger, it’s reckoned about 4 - 5 million people die as a direct result of the burning of fossil fuels.”
Nuclear engineer Norma O’Mahony concurs that nuclear power is a safe form of energy and says many people’s concerns derive from their opposition to nuclear weapons:
“A lot of [media coverage surrounding nuclear] is not factual and it’s based on a public perception and tying a lot of what nuclear power is to maybe its history in the nuclear weapons industry,” she said wearily.
“And obviously they have very little to do with each other.”
The main issue Ireland would encounter if it chose to build a nuclear power station is the huge amount of money they cost to build.
However, Ms O’Mahony maintains that in the long-term it is still cheaper than gas:
“I think the thing you need to remember is what we would call the levelized cost,” she continued.
“And that means taking into account the amount of electricity you would get but also the lifetime of the facility because a typical nuclear facility, currently, all of the designs have a design lifetime of 60 years.
“So that means for your initial capital investment you’re getting whatever power you get out for that 60 years.
“And current experience has shown us that even when you take into account the design lifetime you’re probably going to get an extra 10 or 20 years out of that.
“So I think when you take into account that levelized cost there is a financial advantage over gas, for example.”
'Not ruled out'
Last year Environment Minister Eamon Ryan said he had not he had “not ruled out” building a nuclear power station in Ireland but such a decision would likely encounter fierce resistance from opposition TDs and anti-nuclear groups.
A proposed power station in Wexford brought tens of thousands of protestors out onto the streets in the 1970s and groups, such as Friends of the Earth Ireland, still oppose nuclear power on the grounds that it is “insanely expensive”, risks accidents and “creates dangerous waste for many generations to come.”
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