In 1973, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government decided Ireland needed a nuclear power plant. Shortly afterwards, world oil prices shot up, triggering a major crisis for oil-dependent economies. This made nuclear look attractive as it would have reduced our reliance on oil. Opposition on environmental grounds was initially very limited. There was even significant lobbying to locate it in Sligo or Mayo because of the jobs that it would bring. However, by the time Carnsore in Wexford became the chosen location in the late 1970s, opposition to nuclear power had grown. The dangerous breakdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the United States in March 1979 heightened public concerns.
The 1977 Fianna Fáil government’s recklessly expansionary economic policy was bolstered by wildly unrealistic economic forecasts. That Government initially also pursued the nuclear dream. In a 1978 government memorandum, the Department of Energy sought a commitment to the nuclear project, relying on the Department of Economic Planning and Development’s forecast that growth would be 7 per cent a year between 1977 and 1980, and 5 per cent a year thereafter. Such rapid growth, if it had materialised, would have indeed needed a major increase in generating capacity. As it turned out, bad economic policy meant that the economy did not grow at all in the early 1980s.
In 1978, it was clear to the Department of Finance that the growth forecasts from its sister department were based on wishful thinking, not economic reality. They represented a Liz Truss moment, which ignored basic economics.
The Department of Finance’s more realistic appraisal of the prospects for the economy suggested the plans for a nuclear generator seemed very unwise. In a characteristically blunt letter to the Department of Energy, Finance’s Maurice Doyle wrote in March 1978: “The unquestioning assumption of optimistic long-term projections for growth in GNP is not regarded as a sound basis for energy forecasts.”
He also went on to suggest that a much better response to high energy prices would be to focus on saving energy. He argued that it was indefensible that minimum insulation standards were not applied to new private housing or to new IDA factory buildings. His approach was well ahead of its time.
Unfortunately, these words of wisdom fell on deaf ears. While the nuclear plant was not pursued, an even larger coal-fired station was constructed at Moneypoint in Co Clare. By the time it came on stream in 1987, after a period of no growth in the early 1980s, it led to a major excess of generating capacity. To fund the over-expansion of generation, electricity prices during the late 1980s, and for much of the 1990s, were much higher than in Britain. Bad economics and bad forecasts had serious and long-lasting economic consequences for Ireland.
The Department of Finance’s advice on the importance of energy saving also fell on deaf ears, and it was to be decades before building standards were dramatically improved, as had been suggested in 1978.
New nuclear generators now being built in Finland and France are massively over budget and 10 years overdue
Today, the situation is very different. With a shortage of electricity-generating capacity, we need to build more. Given the imperative of tackling global warming, this means it is essential to dramatically increase investment in renewables and in the necessary backup generation.
New nuclear generators now being built in Finland and France are massively over budget and 10 years overdue. If we were relying on timely delivery of a nuclear plant to keep the lights on, we could spend many candlelit nights. While nuclear generation, when built away from tsunami or earthquake zones, has proved to be safe throughout the western world over the past 40 years, for a number of economic reasons it is still not a solution for Ireland.
As the Department of Finance noted 40 years ago, nuclear generators come at a minimum scale, which is huge relative to the size of the Irish electricity market. In order to guard against the risk of a breakdown in such a single large plant, we would need to maintain equivalent generation capacity as a backup, which would be very costly. Nuclear plants are simply too big to be viable in our small electricity market.
It’s likely to be another 15 years before small-scale nuclear plants are developed that are fully proven in action. The only available small reactors now to be found are in nuclear submarines.
Having invested massively in wind power, we need backup that can be readily powered up when the wind doesn’t blow and powered down again. Nuclear generators lack that flexibility – they are always on. So nuclear is a poor fit for Ireland’s energy needs.