Michael Pattwell: Face facts - we have no option but to pursue nuclear power

The only credible method to produce adequate power is to consider nuclear power, so says Michael Patwell
Michael Pattwell: Face facts - we have no option but to pursue nuclear power

An aerialview of the Chernobyl nucler power plant after the explosion there in 1986, whicb proved the dangers of themethod

I AM probably taking a huge risk to even mention that, if we are to continue the ways of life we have developed and gotten used to, the only credible method to produce adequate power is to consider nuclear power.

This is merely to mention it, not even to suggest it as a possible alternative source of energy.

‘Nuclear power’ is the use of nuclear reactions that release nuclear energy to generate heat, which most frequently is then used in steam turbines to produce electricity in a nuclear power plant.

It seems nuclear power already contributes around one-third of all low carbon electricity, producing practically no greenhouse gases and some 10% of the total electricity produced worldwide.

A recent International conference, hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power, was told that ‘without significantly increasing the use of nuclear power worldwide, it will be difficult to achieve the goal of reducing harmful emissions and fighting climate change’.

In fairness, the IAEA does accept that there are persistent public concerns about the potential dangers to health and the environment caused by radioactive waste from nuclear plants, and Mr Cornel Feruta, the acting Director-General of the agency, said that advances concerning the disposal of such material may alleviate fears about the long-term sustainability of the energy source.

Also speaking at the event, Mr Liu Zhenmin, the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), echoed Mr. Feruta’s remarks and said that the problem of radioactive waste is an “unresolved issue” that needs to be addressed.

In his keynote address, Mr Zhenmin also raised nuclear safety, which he described as “a significant public concern, especially after the Fukushima accidents (March, 2011) and terrorism related fears”.

“The large up-front costs of nuclear power remain an important issue”, continued Mr Zhenmin, “and renewable energies, such as solar and wind, are continuing to drop in price, becoming increasingly competitive with conventional, fossil-fuel based sources. Meeting the capital costs of building nuclear plants will require government commitments and public acceptance.”

There is no doubt about it but there are grave dangers involved in the use of nuclear reactors.

Globally, there have been more than 100 (civilian and military) recorded nuclear power plant accidents since. They are defined as incidents that either resulted in the loss of human life or more than €40,000 of property damage (the amount the US federal government uses to define nuclear energy accidents that must be reported is $50,000), totalling almost €20 billion in property damages.

Property damage costs include destruction of property, emergency response, environmental remediation, evacuation, lost product, fines, and court claims. Because nuclear power plants are large and complex, accidents on site tend to be relatively expensive.

The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, USA, was caused by a series of failures in secondary systems at the reactor, which allowed radioactive steam to escape and resulted in the partial core meltdown of one of two reactors at the site, making it the most significant accident in U.S. history.

The world’s worst nuclear accident was probably the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union, one of two — the other being Fukushima in 2011 — that has been rated as a level 7 (the highest) event on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Note that the Chernobyl disaster may have scored an 8 or 9, if the scale continued.

The accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after an unsafe systems test led to a rupture of the reactor vessel and a series of steam explosions that destroyed reactor number four.

The radioactivity plume spread to the surrounding city of Pripyat and covered extensive portions of Europe with traces of radioactivity, leaving reindeer in northern Europe and sheep in portions of England unfit for human consumption. A 30km ‘Zone of alienation’ has been formed around the reactor.

At least 57 accidents have occurred since the Chernobyl disaster, and over 56 nuclear accidents have occurred in the USA. Relatively fewhave involved fatalities.

It is important to note that not all ratings are final as cancer and uncounted/hidden results may have/will occur and that is probably the real reason people object to nuclear energy.

Five of the most devastating nuclear accidents to date.

It would have been disingenuous of me to advocate the use of nuclear power without setting out the disadvantages and common objections and I have done that now.

Of course, it would be better for the world if it could be avoided, but the fact of the matter is that we have become used to a way of life that I believe is now impossible to change.

Did all the people who flew to Japan to attend a few rugby games have to make those journeys? Of course not. Will I never again get on a plane to fly to America just to spend time with my grandchildren? Again, of course not. Will my youngest son, who has a business with clients all over the world, give up that business and deal only with Irish-based clients? Definitely not. If we are all to continue to live like that, a time will come, however, when we will HAVE to change because sooner or later the fuel from under the Earth’s crust will run out and we will have no other option UNLESS we find an alternative.

Indeed, we have an alternative; nuclear power. I can’t help thinking, when it comes to considering using electricity generated by nuclear power, that we may be somewhat hypocritical. The production of electricity for the Irish national grid (Eirgrid), by nuclear fission, is prohibited by the Electricity Regulation Act, 1999 (Section 18). The enforcement of this is only possible within the Republic of Ireland and it does not prohibit consumption.

Now, it appears, we are actively pursuing the possibility of an electrical link (the Celtic Interconnector) which, if built, will enable the movement of power between Ireland and France. Eirgrid has been working with its French counterpart, Réseau de Transport d’Electricité (RTÉ) to investigate the feasibility of an electrical link between our two countries and a series of joint studies into its feasibility have been carried out since 2011. These have indicated that if built, an interconnector between the two countries would be beneficial for electricity customers in Ireland, France and the EU.

Nuclear power is, however, a major source of energy in France and its largest source of electricity, with a generation of 71.6% of the country’s total production. It is the highest percentage in the world.

Despite our rejection of the use of nuclear power, it seems we will have no problem with consuming electricity generated by that means. (I should mention, however, that Germany has decided to close all its nuclear plants over the next few years, in a dramatic energy policy reversal.)

Nuclear reactors in France haven’t been accident-free either:

June, 2011: A minor and fairly common incident that involved internal leakage at a nuclear reactor was reported by a French investigative website.

September, 2008 and November, 2009: A fuel assembly rod got stuck in the pressure vessel at a nuclear plant in south-east France. It took two months for engineers to stabilise the position of the rod and proceed with its unhooking and removal.

July, 2008: Thirty cubic meters of a liquid containing natural uranium was accidentally poured on the ground and into a river at Areva’s Socatri site in south=eastern France. The spillage happened while the tank was being cleaned at the complex.

December, 1999: A massive storm provoked the partial flooding of some reactors at EDF’s Blayais plant in south-western France. Many nuclear opponents said the flooding nearly caused a major catastrophe because it briefly cut off power at the plant.

March, 1980: An accident at EDF’s Saint-Laurent nuclear reactor in central France caused two fuel rods to melt, seriously damaging the reactor and causing the most serious accident in France’s nuclear history.

Any nuclear accident is potentially serious but from what I can gather these accidents involved just one fatality. In this country alone we kill up to (and sometimes more than) 200 people on our roads each year, using mechanically propelled vehicles. That does not mean, however, that we would even contemplate banning cars and other MPVs as a means of transport.

Yes! Nuclear power is potentially dangerous and of course it would be better if we could live without it, but can we?

We have an insatiable thirst for fuel/power because of what we have become used to. Can we afford to turn our backs on what seems now to be the only realistic alternative?

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net

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