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David McWilliams: Case for nuclear power is strongest since time of Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy may end up kicking off a nuclear debate, pitting Ireland’s emerging Nuclear Bros against our established Windscale Warriors

Cillian Murphy’s chiselled features, his gaunt face, mysterious and half-shaded by tilted trilby, adorns billboards all over the world. Robert Oppenheimer is back and the feature film’s first weekend suggests this could be the biggest movie of the year. Murphy’s brilliant, compromised, chain-smoking Oppenheimer rekindles our fascination not just with the man but the era, capturing the paranoid mood that bedevilled America as it emerged, omnipotent, after the second World War. Nuclear was the ultimate victory of physics and the 20th century became the physics century, with celebrities such as Albert Einstein, the most famous man in the world.

The nuclear age promised cheap energy for all, which could power much of the global economy but, despite the potential of nuclear, the men in the white coats failed to win the day. Associated with war, particularly in Europe, and mired by two major disasters – Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, and Chernobyl – nuclear power became synonymous with environmental catastrophe. Led by the anti-war student radicals of 1968, Green parties all over the world, most notably in Germany, condemned nuclear as the work of warmongers, imperialists and environmental vandals.

But climate change requires we move away from burning fossil fuels and, slowly but surely, the nuclear option is back on the table. The economics of nuclear power are not straightforward but there is a growing realisation, even from the environmental movement, that nuclear is a clean, efficient alternative and should be part of the mix of solutions.

Binary echo chamber

Unfortunately, like so many debates these days, the discussion about nuclear has become something of a binary echo chamber. In fact the energy debate, for many the most important one for global economics and policy, has split along culture or identity lines, framed in an all-or-nothing, heads-versus-tails scaffold. On one side the passionate proponents of nuclear use it as a big stick to beat enthusiasts of slow growth. People on the pronuclear side paint themselves as practical, pro-science hard men, cutting through the hippyish waffle of the renewable-obsessed tree-huggers. Nuclear, they argue, is a universal solution, which it is not. On the other side of the debate, wind, wave and solar enthusiasts contend that nuclear is dangerous and environmentally reckless, and the world is just one Chernobyl away from a major catastrophe, which is not true either.


If we want the world economy to grow and want carbon-free power, we should be pretty agnostic as to how we achieve this (some mix of nuclear, solar, wind and wave) provided it’s replacing more problematic fuels (coal, oil, gas). Sadly this Nuclear-Bro-versus-Windscale-Warrior framework has retarded the discussion over the return of nuclear. I say return of nuclear because, globally, less electricity is produced by nuclear today than at any stage in the past 50 years. In all, 440 reactors now generate 9.8 per cent of the world’s electricity. This is the first time this figure has fallen below 10 per cent since the 1970s, and is 40 per cent below its peak in 1996 when it generated 17.5 per cent. Between 2002 and 2021 there have been 98 new builds and 105 closures and half of those new builds were in China where they haven’t closed any reactors during that same period.

Technology is changing and the pro-nuclear camp claims we no longer need the massive water reactors of the past; the new nuclear will be in what are called small modular reactors that could possibly be factory-produced at a fraction of the cost

Today, the mean age of the world’s nuclear reactors is about 31.2 years and the US has the largest fleet with 92 reactors. This year there are 60 new nuclear reactors under construction of which 21 are in China. When it comes to nuclear projects, China is pioneering. None of its reactors is more than 30 years old. In contrast, 80 per cent of reactors in Europe are three or more decades old. Typically, emerging economies are much more likely to be pronuclear than richer ones.

Technology is changing and the pronuclear camp claims that we no longer need the massive water reactors of the past; the new nuclear will be in what are called small modular reactors – essentially micro reactors – that could possibly be factory-produced at a fraction of the cost. So the nuclear industry’s big bet is on small. In the last two years, venture capital has ploughed $3.3 billion (€3 billion) into nuclear. But this is still small, speculative stuff. The large, established companies increased investment in new US plants by $24 billion last year, but this is just 1/15th of total investment in non-hydro renewable electricity capacity ($366 billion). Even in countries with nuclear reactors, more power is coming from renewable energy. In 2019, in India, solar energy outdid nuclear energy. In the European Union, renewables accounted for 95 per cent of all new electricity generating capacity added in 2019.

Modular reactors

Despite this, 100 years after Einstein won the Nobel Prize for physics, the case for nuclear is more compelling than at any stage since Oppenheimer took over the Manhattan Project. Even in Ireland, where nuclear has been outlawed since Christy Moore led the charge against Dessie O’Malley’s proposed nuclear power station at Carnsore Point in Co Wexford, net-zero objectives mean these small modular nuclear reactors are once again being discussed.

All sides will be lobbing in their tuppence. Recently, Engineers Ireland suggested that the State should overturn a legislative ban on nuclear and the Government seems open to the idea. Another band of engineers called 18 for O believe that adding nuclear power could reduce fossil fuels used in the power sector and thus reduce emissions to the minimum target by 2037. They also claim nuclear could provide up to 1,300 high-skilled, long-term domestic jobs and argue that we have the technical capacity to build and operate a nuclear reactor. Although cynics would argue that when a State can’t even build a children’s hospital on time or on budget, what hope have we of constructing a nuclear power station? That said, nuclear is back.

Spare a thought for poor Cillian Murphy, a notoriously private soul. Not only held responsible for the Peaky Blinder, skin-fade haircut that has created identikit clones out of tens of thousands of Irish teenage boys, from now on he’ll also be accused of kicking off a nuclear debate, pitting Ireland’s emerging Nuclear Bros against our established Windscale Warriors. So much for staying out of the limelight.