Apr 2006

Nukes in Ireland

Ireland, like everywhere else on the planet, is staring down the barrel of an energy crisis. Petrol prices at the pumps hit an all-time high in Dublin this week. Adjusted for inflation, there were brief periods during the political instability of the 1970s when they spiked higher, but there seems little doubt that crude oil will be trading at above $80 per barrel before long, which outstrips even those earlier spikes.

Dr. Colin Campbell, of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), speculated on Irish radio a couple of weeks ago that we could easily witness a fivefold increase on current prices by the end of the decade. When I mentioned this to someone, they told me it was impossible.

“That would mean I’d be paying €400 to fill my car. I can’t afford that.”

I pointed out that didn’t make it impossible. Merely extremely inconvenient for them. But consumerism has somehow – bizarrely – conflated those two distinct ideas in the minds of millions. Which is more than a little unsettling.

I’ve remarked on this many times, but it’s difficult not to find it remarkable. You see, watching “peak oil” develop from being a prediction shared by myself and a few hundred other people into one of the four greatest problems our civilisation will face (the others being climate change, nuclear weapons and Barry Manilow), has just been a remarkable experience. This conspiracy theory possessed by the lunatic fringe – the very premise of which was openly mocked by authorities and experts – has evolved so quickly and dramatically.

If you dig around the various political and corporate websites of the world, you can begin to see references to ‘peak oil’ emerging. But I believe the statement from Irish Green Party energy spokesman Eamon Ryan TD is the first time I’ve heard the phrase uttered in public by an Irish politician…

The only answer to the rising price spiral was to consume less, he said.

“Oil prices may spike above $100 a barrel within the year, but calls for a cut in taxes instead of moving to reduce our oil dependency were missing the point.”

“Prices may fall in the short term, before soaring when the long-term problems with peak oil really start to kick in.”

OK, so it is only the Greens. But it’s a start. And I’m delighted to see the words “consume less” appearing. People should get used to the idea of consuming less, before they have to get used to having less to consume.

What, I guess, sets Ireland a little apart from other nations is the fact that the government (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment) have commissioned a report into the issue of Ireland’s dependence on oil. The Forfás report will be remembered as the Buzz Aldrin of peak oil studies. The second official document (after the US Department of Energy’s Hirsch Report – download PDF) to highlight the approaching crisis.

The key findings of the Forfás report are as follows:

  • There is growing evidence to suggest that the era of a plentiful supply of conventional oil is approaching an end. Various experts and groups have developed projections for when peak oil will occur. While there is a wide variation of estimates about the likely timing, most expert commentators believe that 10-15 years from now, conventional oil supply will no longer be capable of satisfying world demand at current prices. While this subject is clouded by a low level of quality data, there is near global consensus that the potential consequences of peak oil for governments, economies, businesses and indeed individual consumers should be considered now as it will take at least ten years to prepare for its onset.
  • Ireland consumed nine million tonnes of oil in 2004, an amount that has doubled since 1990. In 2002, Ireland ranked 3rd highest among the EU-25 countries in terms of oil consumed per capita.
  • Electricity generation and transportation are the two main factors for Ireland’s high oil dependence. Ireland has relied considerably more on oil for electricity generation than most other EU countries and, as of 2002, had the 6th most oil dependent electricity generation system of the EU-25 countries. The amount of oil used for transportation in Ireland tripled between 1972 and 2002, leaving Ireland consuming at least 50 per cent more per capita than the average of the EU-25 by the end of the period.
  • Taking into account the Irish economy’s relative dependence on imported oil and the relative share of oil in total Irish energy consumption, Ireland is among the most sensitive to rising oil prices and therefore among the most vulnerable to a peak oil scenario.

And the key recommendations are as follows:

  • Ireland should undertake a number of initiatives to reduce the usage of oil in transportation, for example, by bringing about the replacement over time of the existing stock of vehicles with more fuel-efficient vehicles and the provision of alternative modes of transport, particularly public transport, that run on electricity rather than petroleum related fuels (e.g. electrified trams, trains and buses). The potential of using biofuels for transportation should also be investigated.
  • Ireland should assess options to address security of supply concerns that may arise in the context of peak oil. Options should include expanding domestic oil storage capabilities and contracting bilaterally with oil-producing countries that continue to have a surplus of production relative to their domestic requirements. Accelerating plans to develop more East-West electricity interconnection with the UK would also provide a significant degree of energy security, subject to the UK resolving its own security of energy supply problems.
  • Ireland should consider increasing the use of renewable energy sources for electricity generation (such as wind, wave, tidal energy etc), maintaining the continued operation of Moneypoint (Ireland’s only coal fired power station). Although not economically feasible in the short to medium term, Ireland should consider the possibility of developing nuclear energy as a more long-term solution.
  • Ireland should adopt a proactive approach to energy efficiency, seeking to place Ireland at the leading edge of energy efficiency practices. The EU Energy Performance Building Directive (EPBD), which came into effect in January 2006 will provide a basis for assessing and improving energy usage in commercial and residential buildings that is intended to result in a more efficient use of electrical energy.
  • Ireland should accelerate the implementation of the National Spatial Strategy in preparation for peak oil. Current spatial patterns in Ireland militate against the development of an efficient and effective public transport system. The development of regional gateways and hubs will play a key part in enabling urban communities to respond to the challenges of peak oil. Those communities that are adequately resourced in terms of public transport infrastructure will have greater choice in relation to how they respond.

Amazingly enough, this is all pretty sensible stuff for a government report. The clear emphasis is on energy efficiency, demand-reduction and replacing private car use with public transport. And for those who haven’t read it, that is in fact the general view taken by the report. I’m not selectively quoting, those are the conclusions in full. Which is why I’m so incredibly pissed off at the Irish Green Party’s response, and any respect I had for Eamon Ryan TD (their energy spokesman who made the “peak oil” remark) has been taken out back and given a good kicking.

You’re aware, of course, why the Greens responded with such mindless aggression (and believe me, “mindless” was a word chosen very very carefully). It was the word “nuclear” that did it.

No Nukes

Green Party response to the report
Back when I was a teenage conspiracy theorist and UFO crashes were being covered up at a rate of knots, I would have been convinced that Big Business had paid off the Irish Green Party to rubbish the first sensible policy document to emerge in decades.

My mind is no longer clouded by the excitablity of youth. Now I just figure they’re a bunch of fricking idiots.

Let’s be clear about one thing… building a nuclear power station in Ireland would be deeply idiotic. Relative to our size, we probably have better access to renewable energy resources for electricity generation than almost anywhere else on the planet. The decision to use a non-renewable, horrendously expensive and deeply unpopular alternative could only be taken by the quality of moron that even mainstream politics would reject (hard though it may be to believe).

The nuclear debate is actually a very simple one. Far less complicated than the pro-nuclear side would have you believe and, I suspect, far simpler than they’re aware. According to the Australian government – who possess the world’s largest reserves of uranium ore – we have less than fifty years of the stuff remaining at current consumption rates. This fact will become more apparent as consumption increases when – inevitably – some countries do use nukes to mitigate oil and gas depletion.

I also have grave concerns regarding the safety of nuclear reactors and the waste they generate. However, I have no interest in discussing those as objections to a nuclear power policy. The sustainability issue speaks for itself and until that can be adequately addressed I don’t see the need to complicate the debate (note: In the comments, I’m willing to discuss the logistics of “uranium from seawater” and will even speculate on currently unproven technologies like fast-breeder reactors and nuclear fusion… but the last time I had those debates I came away convinced that they don’t – as of now – make nuclear energy sustainable). And replacing one source of energy with another experiencing identical supply constraints is not a sane policy.

People’s Front of Judea

Is it the mindlessness of the mob that leads institutions (such as the Green Party of Ireland) to shoot themselves in the foot so effectively? Or is it something to do with being a pressure group “in opposition” for so long, so that when someone finally starts to agree with them, they launch a fullscale attack?

And the sheer dishonesty of elements of that attack leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

In particular I want to address Eamon Ryan’s response. As the party spokesman on energy, I would expect him to be best informed on both his own party policies in the area, as well as on the issues involved. So I can’t make up my mind whether he failed to read the report he’s responding to, failed to understand it, or has a vested interest in misrepresenting it.

Ignorance, stupidity or dishonesty? Frankly I find none of them to be attractive qualities in a member of parliament.

We welcome the debate on nuclear power and are confident that a proper economic and scientific analysis of the option will show nuclear is not the right solution for Ireland. We regret that the Forfás report on oil dependency turned in the end into a call for nuclear power. Remarkably there was no economic or scientific analysis in the report to back up such a call.

First of all, they clearly don’t “welcome” the debate. The report they line up to “challenge”… the one the energy spokesman “regrets” simply calls for nuclear power to be “considered” as one of a number of options. That’s the word that’s used. It’s one paragraph in the report. It reads…

Another option for Ireland to secure its long run energy security, especially in relation to electricity generation, will be to consider developing the use of nuclear energy. Although this is explicitly not part of Ireland’s policy preferences at present, the revived interest in redeveloping a nuclear electricity sector in the UK will provide an important context for Ireland’s electricity options in the next 5-15 years. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) suggest that, due to the large size of nuclear plant and the small size of the Irish electricity system, a nuclear facility would require so much back-up conventional plant as to substantially raise its overall costs, reducing any potential attraction for investors. The economically feasible scale of a nuclear power station would exceed the capacity of the Irish market to absorb its output. Therefore, Ireland is currently not an attractive location for building a nuclear power station. However, if smaller scale power stations were to come on stream and Ireland’s level of interconnection with the UK market was significantly increased, nuclear energy could become a more realistic energy option for Ireland.

Y’know, in the dictionary, under “equivocal” it says “See that one paragraph about Irish nuclear power potential in the Forfás oil dependency report”. Seriously, if that’s not a call for a debate, then what the hell is it?

Here you have a potentially influential report emerging from within government channels (also with potential for international significance… Dr. Robert Hirsch was a consultant on the report, so you can be sure it’s getting picked up by researchers googling for info); a report filled to the brim with sensible energy policy ideas; and yet the Greens seize on the one ambiguous paragraph that may, in a certain light, give them pause for thought. They’re not just throwing the baby out with the bathwater by painting this report as “a call for nuclear power”, they’re throwing a big sack of handgrenades out after it.

I don’t know what upsets me more… the diabolical nature of capitalism or the incompetence of those we elect to keep it in check. The most plausible explanation that I’ve come up with for Eamon Ryan TD’s response is that he heard an interview or had a discussion with one of the authors of the report. The author was pro-nuclear (i.e. someone on the opposite side of the debate to me and the Greens) and put forward a pro-nuke argument in the context of the report. Ryan didn’t read the report; merely presumed it reflected the opinions of the person he heard talking. Because except for one other mention (non-policy related) nuclear power is not mentioned anywhere else in the report. If you have read this whole article, you have read every relevant word it had to say on the subject.

If the Green Party are rejecting an important set of policy recommendations, and putting their weight behind discrediting them, based upon Eamon Ryan TD’s interpretation of some hearsay, then he needs to resign his brief.

We are now challenging Forfás to present their analysis. The authors of the report argue that we need nuclear power to provide for new electric transport systems. However, only 0.1 per cent of our current electricity goes to power electrified rail lines such as the Dart and the Luas. We could provide a hundred new Dart systems and still have little problem in meeting the increase in electricity demand through the use of renewable resources.

This also pisses me off. Notice the screengrab above, and lovely juxtaposition between the image promoting their biofuels policy and the line: “Remarkably there was no economic or scientific analysis in the report to back up such a call.” It’s pots and kettles all over the place. Except it’s not. Here it’s the pot calling something that’s not black, black.

The reason the Forfás report doesn’t present the “analysis” Eamon Ryan demands, is that it readily admits that the analysis has not been done. In fact, the report is very much a call for precisely that kind of analysis to be done. It urgently calls for assessment of all possible energy resources. This report was an investigation into oil dependency (the title gives it away: A Baseline Assessment of Ireland’s Oil Dependence). What it discovered was that there’s a big problem approaching. In response it calls for research into the best way of solving that problem. Yet the Greens jump up and try to discredit it.

This report calls for an open and honest assessment of our options. Furthermore, it lists several serious difficulties with the nuclear option – highlighting more cons than pros – while doing nothing of the sort when discussing renewables or demand reduction. Taken at face value, this report appears vaguely biased against nuclear power in Ireland. However, if some of the people who compiled it wish to argue in favour of nukes then they’re more than entitled to do so… that’s the nature of the debate that the Greens claim to welcome.

And in case it’s unclear as to why I found such irony in the juxtaposition of that challenge “to present analysis” with the ‘Biofuels’ image, let me direct you to my previous article (Biofuels – The fuel of the future) where I question the rationale behind viewing biofuels as a substitute for fossil fuels. It is my contention that by putting their modest weight behind Biofuels, the Greens are guilty of exactly the failure to provide analysis they wrongly accuse the Forfás report of.

Biofuels, if viewed as a serious contender to plug our liquid fuel shortfall, will result in catastrophic ecological destruction. George Monbiot – in his article, Worse Than Fossil Fuel – states that “Biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth”. He’s not wrong. HT Odum’s quip that ‘modern agriculture is merely an inefficient method of converting fossil fuel into food’ can be equally applied to biofuels. And quite aside from the energy inefficiency involved, the effects on biodiversity would inevitably be disastrous.

Is the Green Party of Ireland suggesting that arable land currently devoted to food production be switched to biofuel production? Or do they suggest we appropriate land from currently untouched ecologies? Either way, have they examined the effects that such an expansion of largescale monoculture policy would have on the environment they’ve selected to grow the fuel stock? My back of the napkin calculation suggested that Ireland would need to devote its entire arable land surface area to growing high-yield fuel crops, while still importing almost half its liquid fuel needs, just to drive the current private automobile fleet (i.e. not addressing freight, power generation, aviation, heating, etc.)

Let me make the same challenge to Eamon Ryan TD… present the analysis which suggests that biofuel is the fuel of the future. And that doesn’t mean a photoshoot next to a van running on used cooking oil.

The authors’ proposal that we contract for a lifetime extension of the Wylfa nuclear plant in North Wales, to feed nuclear power back across an Irish sea interconnector also makes little sense. The reality is that the British Government is never going to agree to this. They themselves are running short of generating power and having a heated debate about whether they should build new nuclear plants. There is no way they will not give up options such as extending existing plant lifetimes which could meet their own needs.

I have no idea whether the authors of the report recommend importing more electricity generated at the Wyfla plant in North Wales. Perhaps they do, but they don’t do it in the report. Unless the search facility in my copy of Adobe Reader isn’t working; neither the word “Wyfla” nor the word “Wales” appear in the text of “A Baseline Assessment of Ireland’s Oil Dependence”.

The report does indeed recommend a greater integration of the UK and Irish electricity grids. This is a staggeringly obvious recommendation, and anyone seriously examining energy security in Ireland would make it. I suspect that Eamon Ryan TD is correct when he suggests that the British government, when examining its own energy security needs, will refuse to increase exports to Ireland.

But that’s no reason not to examine the option and perhaps put out feelers… with a major investment in Irish windpower, it could well be beneficial to both the UK and Ireland to increase transmission capacity between the countries; with the British grid taking advantage of Irish spare capacity during periods of peak wind power and Ireland drawing on British spare capacity on calm days. I’m not suggesting it would work, but I fail to see why the Greens are challenging a call to examine the possibility.

There are many environmental reasons why nuclear power makes no sense but it will be ruled out here first and foremost on simple economic and energy policy grounds. The large size of nuclear plants within a small electricity grid such as our own means the cost of reserve power to cover plant breakdowns, makes it prohibitively expensive.

As I mentioned earlier, my objection to nuclear power rests on its unsustainable nature. And when I speak of “sustainability”, I’m speaking of physical systems sustainability; environmental sustainability. I see all matters of policy through that particular prism. Economics is never a consideration, and I despair when the Greens of all people place it “first and foremost”. My fundamental question is this: “Given a baseline requirement for a 100% sustainable civilisation, how can humanity organise itself and its available resources in such a way as to achieve this with the least suffering?”

Of course some of those terms need defining, but that can wait for another day. One thing that should be recognised, though, is that my insistence on “sustainability” is a philosophical / ethical / moral stance. And one I’m willing to discuss. I believe that through the use of military force and the ruthless exploitation of the remaining resources of the planet, we in the West could probably sustain our way of life for a while longer. However I consider that a morally repugnant option. We have a moral responsibility to those who are physically weaker than us, not to use our superior might to take advantage of that disparity. And we have a moral responsibility to future generations to provide them with a world that is at least no worse than the one we inherited.

Modern western civilisation is failing in both those moral duties. The Forfás report, by placing so much emphasis on demand reduction and energy efficiency, is proposing policies which will – indirectly – begin to redress that. I’m still confounded by the Greens failure to embrace the “all-but-one” paragraphs of the report that don’t mention nukes.

The Green Party is already putting in place real measures to solve the energy crisis we face far more effectively. In Fingal and Dun Laoghaire Councils we have put new energy efficient building standards into local area development plans which will cut in half the power used in our buildings, saving householders thousands of euro each year.

Excellent stuff. This is precisely the kind of activity recommended by the Forfás report.

Switching our car fleet to fuel efficient engines would save as much energy as a nuclear power plant would provide. Switching off our televisions and radios from standby could save the equivalent power produced by two of our peat fired power stations.

Both statements may well be true even though they sound so trite… where’s the analysis Eamon? Eh? But it’s the language of “business as usual”. And guess what…?

All these measures save the Irish public hard cash with no loss of the services energy provides.

See it? The “vote for me” line? The Forfás report implies that the future may well require sacrifice. That it won’t be business as usual. That our society faces significant problems.

The Green message – from the mouth of their energy spokesman – is that a vote for him will save you money, let you buy a shiny new space car and require no greater change in your lifestyle than switching off your telly before you go to bed.

Sleep tight.

Posted in: Opinion