The knotty issue of atomic energy in Ireland

Ireland’s anti-nuclear stance fashioned by Carnsore Point protests

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited debate about energy production. Most European countries rely to some extent on Russian fossil fuels, with 40 per cent of the EU’s natural gas and about a quarter of its oil imports coming from Russia.

In the first two months since the outbreak of war, the EU accounted for 70 per cent of Russian fossil fuel exports at a value of €46 billion, much of which went to the state-owned companies Gazprom and Rosneft. This dependence has complicated efforts to impose economic sanctions on Russia, which has retaliated by cutting supplies to Bulgaria, Poland and Finland.

There is a clear moral case to divest from Russian energy supplies, and the European Commission and International Energy Agency have announced a 10-step plan to do so by 2030. Consumer electricity costs in Ireland, already the fourth-highest in Europe, have increased by an average of 79 per cent since October 2020, making a strong economic case for other options.

There is also a clear environmental case to divest from fossil fuels since they make up such a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions. France has extremely limited fossil fuel supplies and relies heavily on nuclear energy, which generates almost three-quarters of its electricity. Much of the remainder comes from renewable sources, and this means that France’s greenhouse emissions are relatively low compared with many other advanced economies.

Could nuclear power be a solution for Ireland? We have a knotty history with atomic energy, beginning with a similar geopolitical crisis and oil price spike. The Nuclear Energy Board was established in 1968 to explore nuclear generation. In 1973, the Arab-Israeli war resulted in a dramatic rise in prices as petroleum-exporting Arab nations embargoed nations that had supported Israel.

This intensified calls to diversify energy supply, with more than half of Irish electricity generated from oil. The board obtained planning permission for several reactors at Carnsore Point in Co Wexford, with one scheduled for imminent construction.

However, plans were hampered by several changes of government, and it was not until Desmond O’Malley was appointed minister for industry and commerce in 1977 that the project began in earnest. Local groups had debated the costs and benefits of a nuclear power station in Wexford throughout the 1970s, and in 1978 a protest movement led by Friends of the Earth sprung up.

In August, a three-day protest festival dubbed Get to the Point was held at the Carnsore site, attracting thousands of campers to see a headline performance from Christy Moore and international political speakers such as Petra Kelly, the German Green Party founder. Subsequent festivals in 1979 and 1980 featured acts such as Chris de Burgh and U2.

The festivals came at an important cultural moment, with the last gasp of hippie counterculture meeting the rising wave of punk. Anarchist magazines such as Contaminated Crow made anti-nuclear protests their main focus and were well-represented at Carnsore and at smaller protests in Dublin, Cork and Belfast.

The campaign created a sense of temporary unity among the Irish left, with the only exception the British and Irish Communist Organisation, which picketed the protests because it believed nuclear power would be essential in a socialist republic.

Globally, public opinion had begun to turn against nuclear power. In Spain, the Basque separatist group ETA ran a violent campaign that eventually convinced Madrid to abandon the Lemóniz nuclear plant just before its completion.

Disaster thriller The China Syndrome depicted a fictional nuclear meltdown and subsequent cover-up and was released just days before the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania suffered a real meltdown. However, 1979 also saw a further spike in prices caused by the Iranian revolution and the explosion of the crude oil tanker Betelgeuse at Whiddy Island, both of which gave impetus to pro-nuclear power voices.

Ultimately, though, the anti-nuclear arguments won out, and natural gas was chosen to replace oil. In 1999, the Electricity Regulation Act banned electricity produced by nuclear fission in the State. Yet interconnection with the British grid means that some of our electricity does come from nuclear power, and the forthcoming Celtic interconnector with France will increase that. As for Carnsore, while it might not host a nuclear power plant, it does play a role in fossil-fuel diversification: since 2002 it has been the site of a wind farm.

Dr Stuart Mathieson is a postdoctoral fellow working in Dublin City University school of history and geography