The thorny issue of nuclear power – The Irish Times


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited the debate over energy production. Most European countries depend to some extent on Russian fossil fuels, with 40% of the EU’s natural gas and around a quarter of its oil imports coming from Russia.

In the first two months after the outbreak of war, the EU accounted for 70% of Russia’s fossil fuel exports worth €46 billion, much of which went to state-owned companies Gazprom and Rosneft . This reliance has complicated efforts to impose economic sanctions on Russia, which has retaliated by cutting off supplies to Bulgaria, Poland and Finland.

There is a clear moral case for divesting from Russian energy supplies, and the European Commission and the International Energy Agency have announced a 10-step plan to do so by 2030. Electricity costs at the Consumption in Ireland, already the fourth highest in Europe, has increased by 79% on average since October 2020, making a strong economic case for other options.

There is also a clear environmental argument for moving away from fossil fuels, as they account for such a large share of greenhouse gas emissions. France has extremely limited supplies of fossil fuels and relies heavily on nuclear power, which generates almost three-quarters of its electricity. Much of the rest comes from renewable sources, meaning France’s greenhouse gas emissions are relatively low compared to many other advanced economies.

Could nuclear be a solution for Ireland? We have a delicate history with atomic energy, beginning with a similar geopolitical crisis and a spike in oil prices. The Nuclear Energy Commission was established in 1968 to explore nuclear generation. In 1973, the Arab-Israeli war led to a dramatic rise in prices as oil-exporting Arab nations embargoed nations that had supported Israel.

This has intensified calls to diversify the energy supply, with more than half of Ireland’s electricity being generated from oil. The council has obtained planning permission for several reactors at Carnsore Point in County Wexford, including one which is due for construction.

However, the plans were hampered by several changes of government, and it was not until Desmond O’Malley was appointed Minister for Industry and Commerce in 1977 that the project really got underway. Local groups had debated the costs and benefits of a nuclear power station at Wexford throughout the 1970s, and in 1978 a protest movement led by Friends of the Earth arose.

In August, a three-day protest festival dubbed Get to the Point took place at the Carnsore site, attracting thousands of campers to see a landmark performance by Christy Moore and international political speakers such as Petra Kelly, the founder of the German Green Party. Subsequent festivals in 1979 and 1980 featured artists such as Chris de Burgh and U2.

The festivals came at an important cultural moment, with the last breath of hippie counterculture meeting the rising wave of punk. Anarchist magazines such as Contaminated Crow made anti-nuclear protests their main focus and were well represented in Carnsore and at smaller protests in Dublin, Cork and Belfast.

The campaign created a sense of temporary unity among the Irish left, with the sole exception of the British and Irish Communist Organization, which staged protest pickets because it believed nuclear power would be essential in a socialist republic.

Globally, public opinion began to turn against nuclear energy. In Spain, the Basque separatist group ETA waged a violent campaign that eventually convinced Madrid to abandon the Lemóniz nuclear power plant just before its completion.

disaster thriller The Chinese Syndrome describes a fictional nuclear meltdown and subsequent cover-up and was released just days before the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania suffered a real meltdown. However, 1979 also saw another price spike caused by the Iranian Revolution and the explosion of the oil tanker Betelgeuse at Whiddy Island, both of which gave pro-nuclear voices a boost.

Eventually, however, the anti-nuclear arguments prevailed and natural gas was chosen to replace oil. In 1999, the Electricity Regulation Act banned electricity generated by nuclear fission in the state. Yet the interconnection with the UK grid means that some of our electricity comes from nuclear power, and the future Celtic interconnector with France will increase this figure. As for Carnsore, if it does not house a nuclear power plant, it plays a role in the diversification of fossil fuels: since 2002, it has housed a wind farm.

Dr Stuart Mathieson is a postdoctoral fellow working in the School of History and Geography at Dublin City University

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