Is it time for Ireland to consider nuclear power?

31 March 2022

Ireland wants to reduce electricity emissions intensity to 100g/kWh by 2030 by doubling renewable output. Denis Duff explains why he believes it is time to consider nuclear

The current debate on the EU Green Energy Finance Taxonomy has brought into the clear focus a dilemma faced by most European Union nations. Renewables emitting low levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) are deemed to be ‘green’, while both nuclear energy and natural gas are treated as ‘transitional’. But the EU and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) both find that nuclear energy is a low GHG emitter that is as sustainable as technologies already included in the taxonomy, while natural gas is a high emitter.

In a rational world, renewable and nuclear energies would be used to the maximum extent, to reduce emissions as quickly as possible while keeping energy reliable and affordable. Any shortfall would be filled by the cleanest alternatives, including natural gas if necessary. That this is not happening is a cause for deep concern. Our political leaders must realise that they cannot negotiate their way out of a scientific reality.

Ireland’s power system remains one of the most advanced in the world, despite being a small island nation on the West of Europe with only two interconnectors (to Great Britain, and via GB to the EU’s Internal Electricity Market, of which it is a member). Two more interconnectors are planned by 2027.

Recent success at increasing wind energy, now at 40% of the total, has had almost universal political support for more deployment. But it is already failing to achieve the energy trilema of supplying energy that is reliable, sustainable and affordable. We need new gas-fired emergency power generation to ensure electricity security over at least the next few winters, and Ireland’s electricity is amongst the dirtiest and most expensive in the EU.

Ireland has huge, largely untapped, offshore wind energy potential. But it has no native coal or oil, 40% of its gas comes from one native field that will be depleted by 2030, and it has very limited hydro, pumped hydro and geologic gas storage potential. 

Despite this, Irish legislation outlaws new gas or oil exploration licences, burning of native peat, construction of nuclear power stations or the storage of bulk carbon dioxide. These limitations already bring great challenges to the supply of reliable energy, but that deficit has increased because there is a national policy to significantly expand data centres and other power-hungry industry. This will increase electrical power demand by around 50% by 2030.

Ireland wants to reduce electricity emissions intensity to 100g/kWh by 2030 by doubling renewable electricity output, mainly with offshore and onshore wind energy with smaller amounts of solar PV and biofuels. But delays in introducing enabling legislation for offshore wind and acquiring planning permissions, and Ireland’s slow delivery of power transmission infrastructure, already places this target in serious jeopardy.

There is no plan for how to eliminate the remaining emissions, as that depends on economic development of hydrogen or synthetic fuels, powered by excess renewable energy. It is also not yet clear whether a 20% fall in wind energy output in 2021 — due to unusually low wind speeds — is a once-off or is indicative of changing wind patterns off the coast of Ireland.

There is increasing belief that Ireland will need to consider new technologies if its power supply is to meet future emissions targets while continuing to be reliable and affordable.

Scope for nuclear power 

A government study of low carbon options to fully decarbonise Ireland, due for publication in 2024, may consider nuclear energy for the first time in over 40 years. A 2020 report by 18for0 into Nuclear Energy Development in Ireland outlined how it could achieve lower emissions faster, at lower capital cost and cost to the customer, by supplementing 70% renewable electricity with 18% nuclear energy after 2030.

Transitioning to a regulatory system capable of overseeing a civil nuclear programme would be achievable with support from international organisations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA has already found Ireland to have an adequate nuclear regulator for managing medical and other radioisotopes. 

To consider nuclear effectively the two simple pieces of legislation that do not permit nuclear power plants must be repealed, a legislatively simple but politically contentious prerequisite. However, it is an ideal opportunity for Irish politicians, who acknowledge climate change as the defining problem of our generation, to demonstrate leadership in the transformative societal change they say is needed to achieve a clean energy future. This opportunity must not be spurned. 

About the author

Denis Duff is a Chartered Mechanical Engineer at 18for0, a voluntary group of professionals concerned about the credibility of Ireland’s proposals to achieve net zero emissions in Ireland by 2050


Author photo Denis Duff of 18for0, a voluntary group of professionals concerned about the credibility of Ireland’s proposals to achieve net zero emissions in Ireland by 2050
Ireland has a huge untapped offshore wind potential
18for0 believes nuclear power could be the cheapest and fastest route to achieving net zero in Ireland

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