More power to us if we choose nuclear option

Thu, Aug 25, 2011, 01:00

OPINION:Instead of seeking partners to exploit hoped-for offshore fossil fuel resources, Ireland should consider building some medium-sized nuclear plants, writes JOHN GIBBONS

LAST MARCH, shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Fintan O’Toole memorably described a nuclear power station as “a concrete testament to hubris”. The term, he reminded us, came from the ancient Greek, and is a “warning that there are boundaries we should not cross”.

The damage to the nuclear power plants resulting from a massive earthquake followed by a mega-tsunami apparently proved not the mistake of siting these facilities in a vulnerable coastal location, but rather, the folly of building any system that can ever fail catastrophically.

In December 2009, on the eve of the ill-starred Copenhagen climate change conference, O’Toole wrote passionately about the choices we make with values, alluding clearly to the threat to “the future of humanity through climate change [and] . . . finite nature of many of the physical resources it consumes”.

Who could disagree with either of these propositions? First, never engineer systems that can destroy us, and second, accept that human existence itself hangs on the whim of a functioning biosphere.

O’Toole warns that hubris “is peculiar to economic and scientific elites, who are prey to utopian delusions”. To that list, may I respectfully add: newspaper columnists.

Having shaken off a fleeting awareness of the near-certainty of widescale systemic collapse arising from a climate catastrophe driven primarily by the combustion of fossil fuels, O’Toole now proposes – in two recent columns on our offshore oil and gas resources – a magical new solution to Ireland’s woes. Let’s dig up and burn fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Destroy the future to save the future, if you will.

The figures are instructive: there may be 6.5 billion barrels of oil and 20 trillion cubic feet of juicy fossil energy somewhere off our western seaboard. The burning of just the oil component of this Pandora’s box of ancient sunlight will add more than two billion tonnes of the heat-trapping trace gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) to the global atmosphere.

O’Toole’s master plan would unleash at a stroke the equivalent of our total annual emissions for the next 30-50 years. These are the same emissions we are legally and scientifically mandated to reduce by up to 80 per cent in the same period!

He expressed horror that the amoral engineers who design and operate nuclear plants are aware not only of the remote possibility of a catastrophe, but of the fact that nuclear waste will remain toxic for thousands of years.

Could a moral person then possibly argue in favour of an activity that carries enormous risks (such as deep-sea oil drilling 3km below the mountainous open waters of the north Atlantic) of a Deepwater Horizon-style catastrophe, and then be in favour of emitting a climate-altering gas that remains active in the atmosphere for centuries? O’Toole argues that engineers “see the question of what happens in the waste in the distant future as one that is incapable of being answered and therefore one that need not be addressed”. Quite.

The gutsy Norwegians have boxed clever with their hoard of black gold. Domestically, they slapped on a hefty carbon tax as far back as 1991. They prudently squirrel away billions from their energy windfall in a mé féin policy of looking after their own children’s future while the oil they profitably export help destroy everyone’s future.

As global climate destabilisation intensifies, temperature records are being rewritten right around the world on a monthly basis. The shift in large areas of the US is so sudden and so dramatic that climate scientists are already designating it as the “new normal”.

Nuclear energy carries risks, as does aviation, but we still persist because, on the balance of evidence, we reason that the benefits outweigh the risks. Despite extraordinary alarmism over Fukushima, how many people will die in the next 10-20 years as a result of radiation from this incident? Five? Ten? Zero?

On the other hand, at least three million people will die this year as a result of air pollution. That’s more than 8,000 people every day. The principal source is airborne particulates arising from the widescale mining and burning of fossil fuels. It blights the lives of the tens of millions more who live with chronic respiratory disorders from breathing polluted air.

What are the alternatives? Ireland has an embarrassment of renewable energy riches. With sharp demand reduction via insulation and a smart grid, plus a couple of medium-sized nuclear plants, we could possibly achieve the twin goals of strategic energy security and sustainability.

If this too sounds utopian, that’s only perhaps that we lack the guts to face down the Nimbys and deniers, be they from the left or right, and choose instead to tell ourselves comforting lies about the untold wealth lying offshore just waiting to lift us out of the frying pan of today’s crisis and into the inferno that awaits us.

Guts are good, but brains are even better. We’re going to need both.


John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and blogs at Thinkorswim.ie

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