There is a concerted effort to direct Irish environmentalism towards nuclear power. This is largely being led by people from related industries. Their main proposal is that Ireland should commit to building a new form of nuclear power station called a Small Modular Reactor. The promise of this technology would leave you breathless. Reactors can be mostly be factory-built and then transported on to a site, which is much smaller than a traditional nuclear power plant, where they can be fully operational within just five years of the construction project beginning. They can last for more than 50 years, and, it is claimed, they can provide reliable, cheap, and pollution-free energy.
What’s not to like?
Well, quite a few things actually…
Powerful Lobby Groups
One of the criticisms of the COP26 2019 environmental summit in Glasgow was the number of lobby groups that were present. According to the JCFJ’s environmental justice advocate Ciara Murphy, who attended the summit, the real surprise was not from the number of lobby groups from the traditional fossil fuel firms, but that the biggest number of lobbyists were acting on behalf of nuclear energy providers.
Despite the claims of the lobby groups, these new, improved SMR plants don’t actually exist. The International Atomic Energy Agency grants that there are about 50 different plans for this technology, and that prototypes are being built in Argentina, China, and Russia. But none have ever been deployed. Past performance does not guarantee future results, but in the case of SMR technology, there is not even the evidence of past performance to draw on.
The fact that we have to take everything about SMR technology on trust is important because for almost a century, the unfulfilled promise of the nuclear energy industry has left a trail of destruction in its wake. While carbon-neutral from a certain perspective, any claim that nuclear energy has been good for the environment can only be financially motivated. Apart from the obvious catastrophic impact of the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters, in the ten years from 2006-2016, Greenpeace found 166 “near misses” at nuclear power plants in the USA alone.
Nuclear Waste and the Future
Even if it was true that we could build reactors that were guaranteed not to fail, SMR technology does not resolve the fundamental problem with atomic energy. Nuclear power is carbon neutral in the sense that it does not generate atmospheric emissions. But its waste product still has the potential to be environmentally devastating. Spent fuel ultimately cannot be disposed of. It remains toxic for aeons longer than any conceivable human time-frame, beyond the duration of an individual life, stretching beyond the span of any civilization. Even if the majority of the waste substance could be stored safely, there remains a fraction that needs to be held in storage facilities far beyond the reach of any living organism.
Arguably, the only country in the world to tackle this problem seriously is Finland, which began the process of building its Onkalo facility in 1983 and hopes it will be operational in the near future. It will stretch to a depth of almost half a kilometre underground, consisting of 60 kilometres of tunnels and storage cavities. It will cost close to a billion euro when finished. It will have a life span of 100 years. And it will be dangerous for so long that the engineers consulted with theologians, anthropologists and artists to design and construct the opening to the complex so that if it is (re-)discovered in tens of thousands of years by peoples culturally far removed from us, they will know not to look inside: “We need you to know that this place should not be disturbed. And we want you to know that this is not a place for you to live in. You should stay away from this place. And then you will be safe.”
History of Broken Promises
That SMR technology is still just a promise is relevant because at a similar point in the development of traditional nuclear technology, the promises were even more astonishing. There was talk of nuclear power being so cheap that domestic electricity usage would be free. Nuclear power would make the excavation process of major infrastructure processes simple. It would desalinate the oceans. It would accelerate evolutionary processes to magnify agricultural yields. None of the promises came good in reality and internationally respected actors in the industry have been shown to be considerably less scrupulous about their practices than their rhetoric suggests.
There are other issues with the claims being made now. Since 1999, it has been illegal to produce electricity here by nuclear fission. This law was passed easily because there remains widespread opposition to nuclear technology in Ireland among the electorate. If you could change the law, you would still need to find a location where the opposition from the local community could be overcome. If you could achieve all that, you would still need to enter into an arduous planning process. When all the reviews were complete, you could start building. With these hurdles overcome it is reasonable to expect that you could turn on your SMR power plant in about 30 years, just in time for it to be replaced by fusion. The same industry that is pushing SMR technology has also been telling us for generations that a far superior approach is just beyond the horizon.
Nuclear vs Renewables
Critics of nuclear power (and even people who are in theory in favour of nuclear power often express concerns about the nuclear industry), is often accused of being Luddites who are sentimental and irrational in their beliefs about it. Advocates for nuclear power will criticise renewables as the future of energy because “what happens when the sun doesn’t shine”?
The development of renewable technology that is adequate to our energy needs is an ongoing process but unlike with SMR technology, we do have empirical trajectories which show that the share of renewable energy in the mix is consistently growingevery year. For the large part, when the sun doesn’t shine, the wind does tend to blow, and vice versa, which is a firm basis for pathways to explore.
We should also ask – what happens when the sun does shine?Climate-induced seasonal variations in production impact nuclear power too. France is considered one of the world-leaders in nuclear energy and on average, its power stations were offline between 96 and 115 days in 2019 and 2020. Drought and heatwaves are likely to increase, and so too will outages at nuclear power plants.
We are faced with a cataclysmic climate crisis and that leaves us prone to simplistic and comforting tales. One of the most appealing myths we have – which itself is one of the drivers of the environmental crisis itself – is the idea that technological innovation will liberate us from every problem. That’s what makes nuclear promises so seductive.
The Future is Wind
The technology that will play the largest role in our adaptation is one of the oldest. Ireland has some of the best wind power in the world. The contemporary version of the same technology that was used to grind wheat millennia ago has the potential to largely meet Ireland’s energy needs and contribute to the adaptation of all our neighbours too. Of course, there are also risks and costs associated with offshore wind, but it seems evident that if we were to make a massive social commitment to a particular energy technology, it should be wind, not smashed atoms.
Pursuing SMR technology is a form of tilting at windmills, which is ironic when we really should just be investing in windmills.