January 17, 2022
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Come back nuclear energy, all is forgiven

In 1978 Ireland was getting ready to produce its own nuclear-powered electricity but Christy Moore sang us out of it.

He wasn’t alone. Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Clannad, Styagalee, and a  host of other musicians, joined him to protest at Carnsore Point, in Co Wexford,  where energy minister Des O’Malley planned to open the first nuclear power station.

Some 5,000 (mostly young) followers turned up and, as the Irish Times reported, “hippies and punks found themselves allied in the fight to keep Ireland a nuclear-free zone”.

The event was an odd cross between a political rally and a rock festival. There were lectures, speeches and workshops, but mostly there was music and fun.

The ‘Get to the Point’ protest received widespread national and international media coverage, most of it favourable. And when 10,000 turned up for a repeat performance next year, the government was seriously spooked.

Then news broke of a leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the US and of an ineffectual attempt to suppress the story.  There had never been much support for Irish nuclear energy and public opinion now swung decisively against it.

Ministers were quick to disown the plan and O’Malley was forced to abandon it. The Dáil later passed legislation that specifically banned the production of nuclear electricity and so Ireland missed the opportunity to become self-sufficient in the supply of a cheap, clean, sustainable and environmentally-friendly fuel.

Nuclear energy remains a divisive issue and I’m sure some readers are bristling at the adjectives I have just used to describe it. I am happy to stand by them.

Yes, I know there have been nuclear power tragedies in Japan and the old Soviet Union, as well as that leak at Three Mile Island. But the disasters have all been at outdated, badly-maintained stations and, even allowing for these failures, the safety record of nuclear power production is better than that of other fuels. Far more people have died in the production of coal, oil and even gas from the sea, and they all do  more harm to the environment.

In any case, it wasn’t only fear of power-plant leaks that shaped public opinion back in 1978. In many minds nuclear-energy was associated with nuclear weapons, although there was no relationship other than that they were both driven by power derived from uranium.

Nuclear weapons raised a fear that campaigners could easily play on. Christy’s  Carnsore song (co-written by Johnny Moynihan) warned of “a hard rain on Ireland pouring down … there’ll be no time to shelter … thousands could be killed”.

Ireland’s refusal to produce nuclear-powered electricity did not stop us using it: we imported it from Britain and, via Britain, from France. As long as we could turn on our lights we were happy to stay in the dark about the source of the energy.

We may soon be invited to rethink our nuclear policy. The EU has been neutral on the issue of nuclear power but  is now considering its classification  as an “environmentally friendly energy source”.

The decision will be taken by the entire commission but the immediate approach will be decided by Ireland’s commissioner Mairead McGuinness, since the issue falls under her financial services portfolio.

Ms McGuinness seems to favour the development. “Nuclear is low carbon and for a number of member states is an important energy source,” she said, adding that she sees nuclear as part of the ‘taxonomy’,  a Brussels-type word that means economic activities which contribute to the fight against climate change.

I hope Ms McGuinness holds her nerve and persuades her fellow commissioners. And I hope Ireland takes the opportunity for a re-think on nuclear.

In this fight against climate change, Ireland is looking to electricity entirely produced by the power of wind, waves, and solar energy. They are good providers and they are already meeting a lot of our demand. But waves are difficult to harness and the other sources are dependent on the weather.

We need a reliable back-up and we shouldn’t let sentiment, social media scares or Christy Moore, talk us out of nuclear-powered electricity.

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