Should we relook at nuclear power?

6th October 2000

FOR as long as I can remember I have been opposed to nuclear power.

This is a very easy position to hold in Ireland as there is almost unanimity on the issue. No politician with a grasp of common sense would ever raise the possibility of building a nuclear power station here.

But I wonder if the choice between fossil fuels and nuclear power shouldn’t be looked at again, simply as the choice between two evils.

I wonder if we (humanity, I mean) can go on using fossil fuels when nuclear power may not be so destructive.

I’ve always thought that nuclear power was grand except for the waste and the danger of accidents.

Recently I came across an article on James Lovelock, a man famous for the ‘Gaia’ theory. The Gaia theory states that the earth itself is a living organism, as opposed to a whole lot of plants and animals running around a big rock.

Now, Lovelock’s theory was seized upon by the green movement as a proof of the innate beauty of the earth and the need to defend it.

And so Lovelock is a hero to many environmentalists. Therefore, it should come as a great shock to find that he is in favour of nuclear power.

It turns out that the man is a realist and a logician. The Gaia theory was not a piece of idealism – rather a piece of observation.

His reasoning is obvious. Nuclear power will kill us if something goes wrong. Fossil fuels are killing us already and the greenhouse gases threaten to make the world uninhabitable.

Modern civilisation has an insatiable appetite for energy. Just to sit among the Dublin mountains at night is to be astonished by the need for power. On the M50 every morning and evening, cars line up for miles and belch out pollution.

Dublin is a fraction of the situation in Ireland. Ireland is a very small fraction of the situation in the developed world.

And the 70% of people who live in the underdeveloped world haven’t, literally, started to use energy at all.

Imagine the situation when some 8 or 9 billion people reach our level of energy consumption.

Sometimes I think people don’t realise how small this planet is. In diameter it is just 8,000 miles wide, roughly the distance from here to Los Angeles.

The atmosphere, which sustains all life, extends to just 15 miles high. If you have been on a plane you will have reached over 6 miles.

You can imagine, it is within your grasp, the amount of atmosphere available to us. Into this skin, this veneer around the earth, hundreds of millions of vehicles pump the so-called nox gases.

It can’t go on like this, never mind contemplating it getting ten times worse.

What are the alternatives?

Firstly, to stop using energy. This isn’t going to happen. The best we can do is to eliminate waste and also to make energy users pay the full price – including all the damage – past and future.

Secondly, we can find alternatives. As a former member of a wind energy co-op I know how underused this renewable resource is. And there are many others such as wave power, biomass, geo-thermal heat, etc.

All of these methods have environmental consequences of their own.

New technologies are coming on stream, the most promising of which is the fuel cell based on hydrogen burning.

To my mind the most urgent task is to phase out the internal combustion engine and to run vehicles on electricity.

You will note that this involves the transfer of the pollution from the car to the power station. It then becomes a question of the best way to produce electricity.

I would never advocate nuclear power off first principles. But I honestly don’t believe that renewable energy resources have the capacity to fully replace fossil fuels.

In that event, nuclear power might be the only option we have.

We are facing catastrophe due to global warming. Millions of people will die in flooding and displacement. It might be time for extreme measures.


As well as that…

Beware the postman’s knock

Last Monday morning at 7.30 I got a knock on my door. It was the postman and he brought me a registered letter for which I had to sign to say I received it.

An unexpected letter always brings a small frisson of excitement and an unexpected registered letter even more so.

What could it be?

Did I win the lotto?

Did a distant great aunt die and leave me her ranch in Wyoming?


It turned out to be from the Garda Siochana, a fine of £50 for doing 55mph in a 40mph zone on the Lucan by-pass.

I returned to the scene of the crime on Tuesday morning and found myself doing 50mph while everyone else passed me out.

My conclusion is that the design of the road is inimical to a 40mph zone and that the guards just show up any time they want to issue a few tickets.

Which, as far as I’m concerned, leaves garda credibility and integrity in tatters.

So the next time I cross over an utterly pointless speed limit and the registered letter arrives at my door I won’t be signing for it.

The guards can bloody well send a squad car to deliver it.