The key task for organizations such as EFN (www.ecolo.org) and BENE (www.bene.ie) has to be the conversion of Irish public opinion from its deep-rooted antagonism towards nuclear power to a recognition that nuclear will have to be a significant component in the country's energy supply in the years to come. It is not necessary that people come to love nuclear power. The reality of the situation is very well summed up in the article by the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, in the London Independent of 13 July, where he says in effect that he would be much happier if the UK could survive without nuclear power, but that, in the light of energy supply and climate change realities, nuclear power is going to be indispensable.
In Ireland , the political system is clearly going to be an obstacle to the change in public opinion which is needed, given the entrenched opposition to nuclear power which prevails right across the political spectrum. Some small encouragement can be taken from the recent call for a debate on nuclear power from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Natural Resources, and the welcome for such a debate from the Green Party spokesman on energy. The evolution from this to a point where any party will reverse its policy, to one favouring nuclear, will inevitably take a considerable time, and substantial change in the parameters shaping energy policy.
In practice, such change can be expected to take the form of progressively increasing cost, reflecting a combination of the direct effects of rising oil and gas prices with the cost of purchasing carbon credits to compensate for the country's accumulating failure to keep its carbon emissions within internationally agreed limits. What is difficult to estimate is how long it will take before this escalation of energy costs will impact sufficiently on public consciousness, and on the national economy, for serious questions to be asked as to whether the total exclusion of nuclear from the energy mix is any longer a rational policy.
If, when these questions are asked, an answer favourable to nuclear is to emerge, it will be essential that satisfactory solutions can be proposed to a number of key issues, which will include:
Some factors relating to each of these issues are discussed in what follows.
Of all the obstacles to adoption of nuclear power in Ireland , it is likely that the most difficult to overcome will be the NIMBY factor, as it applies to the question of where to locate the nuclear power plant. This is well illustrated by the long-running saga of local objections to something as relatively innocuous as the delivery pipeline for the Corrib gas field.
It is all too easy to visualise the furore which will inevitably surround any plan to build an NPP in any particular location in Ireland . One can foresee a coalition between the irreconcilable opponents of nuclear power from the whole country on the one hand, and on the other massed local residents, who will argue that however good an idea an NPP might be in principle, there are multiple persuasive reasons why their backyard is the wrong place to put it.
The fact that the plans may have gone through all the hoops of the formal approval process will cut absolutely no ice with the kind of "people power" which can be expected to make itself felt in these circumstances. In this context it is also salutary to reflect on the lack of progress over the best part of twenty years towards putting in place such a minor, but needed, development as a central national facility for the storage of medical and industrial radioactive waste.
The problem of finding a site for an NPP is also of course especially difficult for a hitherto non-nuclear country like Ireland, which will be at a distinct disadvantage relative to countries which have existing sites where nuclear facilities are already accepted, and in some cases even welcomed, by the local populations. Resolving this problem will require immense political skill, patience and commitment over an extended period of time.
It will be necessary to decide how the radioactive waste from an Irish NPP will be disposed of. Presumably the high-level waste will have to go to a deep geological repository, while appropriate facilities will also have to be provided to deal with the intermediate-level and low-level material. The question may well arise as to whether Ireland will have to be absolutely self-sufficient in respect of all of these facilities, or whether, under EU auspices or otherwise, some measure of international collaboration in radioactive waste management will have evolved by the time an Irish NPP will be in operation.
There would be obvious attractions for Ireland , both economically and from NIMBY considerations, in being able to export our radioactive waste, but against the background of our anti-nuclear history it would require consummate political skill, not to mention the eating of a large quantity of humble pie, to bring such a desirable situation about.
In any event, whether going it alone or through some international arrangement, it will be essential that a clear waste management route has been charted before there is any possibility of committing to the construction of an NPP. To the extent to which waste management and/or disposal facilities will have to be established in Ireland, these will of course have to undergo there own approval processes, with all the difficulties surrounding site selection referred to above in respect of the NPP itself.
A proposal for the construction of a nuclear power plant can be expected to require approval from:
• The Oireachtas
• The relevant local authority
• An Bord Pleanala
• The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER)
• The RPII
• The EPA
The Oireachtas will need to repeal the current legislation which prohibits the use of nuclear power for electricity generation.
The granting of planning permission will have to be considered by the local authority, and any appeal against its decision will have to be dealt with by An Bord Pleanala.
The CER will have to address reactor size, as well as economic issues surrounding return on capital, as represented by the tariff to be paid for the electricity produced over the life of the plant.
The RPII will have to license the plant, having regard to issues of nuclear safety and radiological protection.
Depending on the terms of legislation, the EPA may or may not have a role in granting a licence in respect of non-radiological impact on the environment.
Will an Irish NPP be publicly or privately financed? Current thinking on promoting competition in the electricity sector runs very much counter to public sector ownership of new generation plant, so, as things stand today (but this may change in the future), it can be expected that a government will seek investment by the private sector in any proposed NPP.
Clearly any investment decision will have to take full account of the inherent economic features of nuclear power : high initial capital cost, long project lead time and investment payback over a long plant life. In conjunction with these factors, any prospective investor will have to bear in mind the uncertainties associated with the approvals process, together with the potential impact of public opposition, including likely passive resistance in disregard of the outcome of formal processes, on the time interval between the decision to invest and the plant coming on stream. What is going to be anathema to a prospective investor is a high degree of uncertainty as to how long a project will take to come on stream, or indeed as to whether it will ultimately come to fruition at all.
A government will therefore have to convince an investor that it will be very resolute in regard to these issues if it is going to attract the necessary commitment by the financial markets.
conversion of public opinion in Ireland to acceptance in principle of
nuclear power is a major challenge. In itself, however, such acceptance
in principle will be no more than a first step, albeit an essential
one, in the total process which will have to be gone through in order
to bring a nuclear power plant into operation in Ireland. Organizations
such as EFN and BENE can play an active role in this regard.
Source : BENE 2007 - adapted by EFN - Environmentalists For Nuclear - www.ecolo.org