Government urged to reconsider Ireland’s nuclear power ban

‘Small nuclear reactors can support Ireland’s energy security and reduce fossil fuel use,’ says Engineers Ireland

The Government should reconsider the legislative ban on generating nuclear energy, given the extent of the current climate and energy crises, according to the main body representing engineers in Ireland.

Speaking at their annual conference in Dublin on Wednesday, Engineers Ireland president John Power said the case for building smaller modular reactors (SMRs) should be considered — the technology generates no carbon emissions.

“In the midst of our current climate and energy crisis, perhaps it’s time to reawaken this discussion on nuclear energy in an informed, mature and balanced manner,” he said.

“We, as engineers, need to be innovative in relation to the provision of energy while keeping climate change, and its effects, to the forefront of our minds. The extensive use of fossil fuels has created an enormous challenge for all of us,” Mr Power said.


Ireland needed to be pragmatic in its decarbonisation goals, and to re-examine legislative restrictions that preclude generation of nuclear energy in this country under the 1999 Electricity Regulation Act, he suggested.

“Innovative approaches like the use of small modular nuclear reactors need to be given real consideration if we are serious about mitigating the real prospect of energy shortages in the years ahead,” he said.

The international shift towards SMRs, “which are more flexible and cost-effective than large reactors, offers real opportunity for global decarbonisation”, Paul Stein chairman of Rolls-Royce SMR told the conference. His company is involved in partnerships with a view to building a range of SMRs in Europe, including the United Kingdom, where the first connection to the grid is scheduled for 2029. They cost about €2 billion, and can be built in a factory setting and then moved to site.

The nuclear expert said SMRs offered a highly-competitive source of continuous clean energy. In Ireland’s case, he believed seven SMRs could provide its current power needs but underlined that in transitioning to net-zero emissions by 2050 all technologies would be needed, particularly wind and solar.

Mr Stein said: “With enhanced safety and security built in, their relatively small size compared to the conventional nuclear plant means they take up less than a tenth of the space, require significantly less capital outlay, need less staff, and are not exposed to the vagaries of construction in the open environment, yet still provide a safe, robust and reliable carbon-free energy source.”

Clean energy from SMRs offered potential to support a country’s national grid and safeguard key economic areas relating to heating, data centres and heavy industry, as well as complementing production of e-fuels to drive sustainable economic progress, Mr Stein said.

“Demand for electricity will continue to grow in any reasonable future scenario, and fossil fuel waste demonstrably impacts our climate negatively ... By comparison, the amount of nuclear waste from an SMR is minute and is managed safely and securely,” he said.

Wind and solar were intermittent renewables requiring a backup source of energy such as battery storage, but this option was technically challenging at scale. “With public and political support, nuclear has got to be in the energy mix if we are to reduce the global use of fossil fuels, which is critical for decarbonisation,” Mr Stein said.

In response to the Engineers Ireland call to lift the nuclear ban, Minister for Climate and Energy Eamon Ryan said he was “always open to discuss and debate or look at the issue of nuclear power”.

“But I think anybody who does that would recognise it’s a multiple of the price in Ireland of the alternative renewable power we have that’s available in abundance,” he said.

“We don’t have the skills and expertise, we don’t have the waste problem or other security problems that come with the deployment of nuclear. I don’t think we should rule out any low-carbon energy supply system, but I don’t see nuclear playing a role. I’ve never as Energy Minister had a single person come to me saying I think we should invest in nuclear,” Mr Ryan said.

He believed it was an incredibly expensive power supply source. “What we will do is invest in lower-cost energy systems that will help bring people’s bills down. Why would we switch to an incredibly expensive alternative that we have no expertise in, we don’t have the decommissioning [capacity],” he said.

“Next week we’re in the Dáil getting emergency power generation sources that will give us the backup when the wind isn’t blowing. There are alternative solutions there, they are cheaper and they’re the ones we will use rather than going down an expensive route option.”

Case for supergrid

Renewables entrepreneur Eddie O’Connor told the conference there was sufficient energy in wind and solar globally to allow these resources to completely replace fossil fuel use.

Nuclear was “a CO2 free possibility” but expensive compared to wind and solar, he said, and “it leaves a 30-year tail of radioactive elements which must be carefully protected and treated — and there’s no electricity sales to pay for it”.

As the world was reaching climate tipping points, “decarbonisation is not something we can afford to do at our leisure”, the chairman of SuperNode technology company added.

Getting to net-zero emissions in Europe, however, would be impossible without putting in place a “supergrid” across the continent to send vast amounts of renewable electricity to where power was needed, he said.

European weather systems provided clues in how to begin planning for the ubiquitous deployment of wind and solar, Mr O’Connor believed. This was in the form of offshore wind in the northwest Atlantic and solar concentrated in southern Europe.

Within that dynamic Ireland was “the only EU country with access to the massive wind speeds of the North Atlantic” — up to 12 metres per second.

Because of the scale of wind farms, size of turbines and access to higher wind speeds, offshore wind energy would soon be cheaper than onshore wind, Mr O’Connor predicted.

The 30 gigawatts of Irish offshore wind planned for by the Government was only a fraction of what could be generated. It would be quite possible to install many times this amount in the marine area controlled by Ireland and to supply a lot of Europe’s energy needs after 2030, he said.

To meet Europe’s energy challenges and overcome the variability of wind and the intermittency of solar, he had concluded Europe needed a supergrid sitting on top of existing onshore European grids and regulated at EU level.

It would enable the smooth transfer of wind power in the Atlantic and solar power in southern Europe, and even North Africa, to areas of most demand, he said.

These sources would be complementary; “when wind is strong in the north in winter, solar tends to be weak in the South. When solar is strong in the summer wind tends to be weak in the North”.

“The supergrid is composed of a series of cables which connect to sub stations ... as well as collecting locally generated power, [they] act like routers in an IT system, and route the electricity to where it is most required,” he explained.

It was proven technology that had less of a footprint, was considerably cheaper and operated at a much lower voltage than traditional grids using copper cables, he noted. This was made possible by using superconductors, which can transfer huge quantities of power without resistance below a critical temperature.

“Very little material is used compared to copper. If the conducting elements, copper, and yttrium are compared, one tonne of superconductor is the equivalent of 30,000 tonnes of copper,” he pointed out.

“To date we have had considerable success. We have found cheap material which doesn’t shrink when cooled at minus 200 degrees. We have developed and tested an insulation system that is the best in its class, building on cutting edge insulation from Nasa.”

The sheer innovation involved in this venture had found an appreciative audience in diverse political circles in Ireland, Mr O’Connor said, while SuperNode had started building prototypes to demonstrate the effectiveness of the superconducting cables.

A supergrid was likely to cost about €990 billion but should be put in the context of the EU recovery plan post-Covid amounting to €2.1 trillion — and it could be built in stages with scale up after 2030.

“The supergrid is very much a long-term project. But the quicker we action its development, the sooner mass benefits will be realised — the ongoing Ukraine war underlines the case for great urgency,” he underlined.

The EU now needed to bring forward the regulatory changes and governance structures to allow it to be constructed.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times