Have you heard of the Irish Woodstock1? It isn’t a strange retro festival coming this summer, but an important historical event that has affected Irish politics and energy generation to this day, despite happening in the long distant days of 1978. ‘Get to the Point’, the event’s proper title, was the culmination of five years of effort by citizens concerned about government plans to build four nuclear power plants at Carnsore Point in Co. Wicklow, a protest concert headlined by none other than Irish musical luminary Christy Moore. In every way, the protestors succeeded. The government discretely scuttled the plans and, in 1999, made it illegal to use nuclear fission for the purposes of electrical generation. While it is an admirable example of non-violent action by citizens leading to change in an unpopular government policy, in light of the current climate crisis and Ireland’s commitments as part of the Paris Agreement to cutting emissions, was this decision beneficial for the country in the long run?
The main fears1 around the proposed Carnsore Point Power Plants, ignoring the political dimensions of the Cold War era, were the safety risks posed by the by-products of the fission process- radioactive nuclear waste- and the danger posed by failure of the reactor, which could render the land all around the plants deeply irradiated. It is likely that similar concerns are first and foremost on the minds of those who continue to oppose nuclear power in Ireland today- though the most recent surveys indicate that the percentages of the population in either the pro- or anti- camp are roughly even.2
Are these concerns founded? Dealing with the latter concern first, there is no doubt that the consequences of an accident, like at Chernobyl, can be catastrophic and should not be taken lightly. On the other hand, the majority of nuclear accidents are caused by a mixture of human and equipment error, which are exceedingly rare, especially since nuclear power plants are held to high safety standards in light of the danger an unmitigated accident poses. Consider France3, which opened its first nuclear power plant in 1962 and now has over 50 nuclear fission reactors, supplying about 70% of the nation’s energy. They’re power plants have not had a serious accident since 1980 and it was resolved without the endangerment or loss of human life. France’s success runs counter to the common anti-nuclear narrative that each power plant is a disaster waiting to happen. As such, it is unlikely that the fears around a nuclear disaster in Ireland would have come to pass- though for some people, any chance of such a disaster might be too much of a risk.
The concern of nuclear waste is more insidious. The physics cannot be denied- the by-products of Uranium-235 fission can remain dangerous to humans for up to thousands of years and need to be carefully managed of to avoid endangering human life4. The best solution is deep geological disposal, either in natural caves or in purposely created boreholes using repurposed oil drilling technology, with hundreds of meters of bedrock protecting civilization from the harmful rays5. Attempts to engage in the creation of large-scale waste disposal facilities, however, are often kneecapped by the protests of citizens within the selected locality, who are unwilling to take what they perceive to be an unfair risk. It is only in Finland that serious work has been done in creating a facility purpose built for nuclear waste disposal. It can be said then that the concerns of the protestors at Carnsore Point were perhaps well founded here- if the Irish Government could not safely dispose of nuclear waste, sooner or later someone would be hurt. If one analyses the situation here, however, a certain cycle can be seen to emerge- without a way to dispose of nuclear waste safely, people oppose the construction of nuclear power plants- yet, equally, when nuclear waste disposal facilities are to be constructed, these two are opposed because people don’t view them as safe.
This latter point dovetails neatly in the final point I wish to make in this blog post. It may be that the concerns of the protestors at Carnsore continue to be valid in the modern day- but only because such concerns made taking actions to alleviate the worries difficult, if not impossible. The risk of an accident can never be made zero. Nuclear waste cannot magically disappear. At the same time, we cannot generate energy out of nothing. It may be that accepting the risks of nuclear power plants at Carnsore would have been better for the island of Ireland in future. There is no single silver bullet to solve the current energy crisis, but rather a chain of connected solutions that require us to consider every option fairly, and not fall into the trap of 20th century hysteria.