ENERGY is having a moment.
For decades, we took our power and heating needs for granted, and even with the onset of climate change, it merely seemed to be a case of smoothly transitioning to alternatives that won’t roast the planet.
But in a matter of months, energy has moved front and centre of global and national debate.
It began last autumn, with dire warnings from EirGrid of winter black-outs because of a shortfall in electricity supply. Not very ‘first world’ at all. What was going on, we wondered?
The war in Ukraine then sent power costs soaring into the stratosphere, while, overnight, Europe was forced to rethink its strategy of buying so much energy in from the rogue state of Russia.
The issue of energy sources and costs has bubbled along ever since - even Ireland’s peats and bogs have had their moment in the sun.
Big problems call for big solutions, and, on the energy front, there has been one staring us in the face for decades.
It is a solution that would solve all our problems at a stroke: wean us off fossil fuels and allow us to hit Net Zero climate change targets, while securing our power needs beside renewable options. It would also end imported energy, and we would no longer be vulnerable to fluctuating costs in a volatile world.
That solution is nuclear power.
Sadly, it is an option that has never been on the table in Ireland, partly thanks - oddly, in my mind - to a party that calls itself Green, and for which the environment is the main (some would say sole) plank of its aims and ambitions.
Just why does the Green Party - which has its hands on the levers of power, and whose leader is our Minister for the Environment - dislike nuclear power so much?
The answer to that lies in the dim and distant past, in an era when nuclear was a scary word associated with the obliteration of Japanese cities and tests in the Pacific atolls.
With nuclear power springing from the same atom-splitting genius, it became de rigueur for the young, the impressionable, and the idealistic in parts of the West to oppose it in all its forms.
Many with an interest in politics in the 1960s and ’70s staunchly opposed all things nuclear, and a generation later, the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor was seized upon as proof that this new science was never to be trusted.
Here in Ireland, it was easy to oppose nuclear power, as the country didn’t have the means to build a plant in the 20th century.
By 1999, opposition to it was so ingrained that it was banned under the Electricity Regulation Act. An Irish solution to something that wasn’t even an Irish problem. Conveniently, however, the law did not prohibit consumption of nuclear power made elsewhere, which we happily do.
Like with abortion, Ireland was happy to out-source a problem; to rely on neighbours to do the heavy lifting, while retaining a po-faced, ethical, principled stance.
Indeed, there is a similarity between the Irish attitude to nuclear power and our view on neutrality: We’re happy to reap the benefits of others’ toil and money, but we won’t be getting our hands dirty ourselves, thank-you.
And so the ‘Not In Our Back Yard’ stance of the Green Party, and of left-wing parties generally, on nuclear power has remained since. However, with the onset of climate change, it is a policy that has come under greater scrutiny.
After all, if the Greens’ apocalyptic scenarios are to be believed, the environment is an emergency situation, we’re all going to burn alive by 4.30pm on Tuesday week, and we need action to avert it NOW, THIS SECOND, DAMN IT!
Yet, when confronted with the facts about how nuclear power could play a key role in ending our reliance on fossil fuels, they shrink back to their student room politics. And suddenly, climate change isn’t quite such an emergency. ‘Ah sure, lookit, we’ll be grand, once we’ve sorted wind, wave and solar options, hopefully some time in the near future...’
It seems strange, in my mind, to speak confidently of the end of the world being nigh due to climate change, then to dismiss the safest, cleanest energy system available because... well, why?
There’s nothing wrong in having principles, of course, but this feeds into a notion that many members of the Green Party are devoted not so much to saving the planet, but to inflicting their own happy-clappy version of life on us all. That they want us to eat lentils, walk and cycle everywhere, and live in treehouses, not because it would save the planet, but because it would be a wonderful world. But the Greens and their anti-nuclear allies are not for turning.
At the start of the year, when the European Commission suggested nuclear power be classified as a green energy, there was furious opposition, and claims the EU was indulging in that modern crime of ‘greenwashing’ on a grand scale.
But look at the facts: Nuclear power emits 70 times less CO2 than coal, 40 times less than gas, four times less than solar energy, two times less than hydroelectricity, and the same amount as wind energy - which is notoriously dependent on how the wind blows.
Eighteen countries in Europe operate nuclear plants, producing a quarter of its electricity. France is firmly in the pro camp; its 56 plants produce more than two-thirds of its energy, and in a bid to woo voters ahead of his re-election on Sunday, President Emmanuel Macron vowed to build up to 14 more reactors by 2050.
His plan is to combine this with 50 more offshore wind farms, and a tenfold increase in solar panels tenfold: a combination of nuclear and renewables that could easily work in Ireland.
It may surprise some to learn Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, castigated as a supporter of Vladimir Putin, wanted to wean France off Russian energy by building 20 nuclear plants, and combining that with renewables.
In France, the nuclear debate has long been won, while we’re stuck in the thrall of the type of old-hat politics that gleans its insight into the issue from Mr Burns and Homer Simpson.
The UK is also committed to approving a new reactor each year until 2030, and having them up and running by 2050.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the Green Party has far more sway, and the country has long been committed to shutting down all its nuclear plants by the end of 2022. Now that stance is facing hostility, after Russia, its main energy provider, invaded Ukraine.
Many Irish experts support the nuclear option. UCC lecturer Dr Hannah Daly, who focuses on sustainable energy and energy systems modelling, believes it is necessary to consider it as it’s a low-carbon source of power generation. She said earlier this year: “Countries cannot discount any established technology like nuclear, where it’s technically suitable.”
But the Greens know better.
Nevertheless, it seems an increasingly dodgy gamble to put all our eggs in the renewables basket.
Opponents cite the expense of a nuclear plant, but Rolls-Royce is currently developing smaller reactors, which could make it a more feasible option.
Of course, the NIMBY types will be out in force if a plant is slated in their neighbourhood, even though there is simply no radiation risk from living beside one. Similarly, concern over waste from the process is hugely overblown.
Perhaps the nuclear ship has sailed, Ireland’s ability to tap into renewables will see us through - and perhaps the nuclear option will just be deemed too costly. But we can say with some certainty that if Ireland had pursued that path decades ago, we could even now be meeting climate targets.
The fact a party that identifies as greennhas played a part in blocking that is quite sad. The Greens often call for action to change our collective behaviour - maybe they could start with their own baffling stance on nuclear power.