Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Nuclear Energy: Discussion
The next item is engagement with Better Environment with Nuclear Energy, BENE, in considering nuclear energy as an option for Ireland. I welcome its representatives Mr. Frank Turvey, Dr. Tom O'Flaherty, Mr. Denis Duff and Professor Philip Walton. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any opening statement submitted to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Mr. Turvey to make his presentation. I ask delegates to limit their contributions to approximately ten minutes to give as much time as possible to questions. We are under a little of pressure with regard to time.
Mr. Frank Turvey:
I thank the joint committee for giving us, as representatives of BENE, the opportunity to speak to it. I will start by introducing my colleagues and saying a little about their backgrounds and why we consider ourselves competent to talk about nuclear power. Dr. Tom O'Flaherty is a former chief executive of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII; Mr. Denis Duff is a retired ESB mechanical engineer, while Professor Philip Walton is a professor emeritus from University College Galway. I am a marine, mechanical and nuclear engineer and a former assistant to Dr. O'Flaherty at the RPII. We are probably the most experienced and qualified group to advise on the use of nuclear power in this country. Our collective experience covers reactor design, construction, commissioning, operation and maintenance. It is important to point out that we have no vested interests in the nuclear power industry. We are here to explain why many respected semi-State and other bodies have called for the use of nuclear energy to be considered in Ireland. These include the Commission for Energy Regulation, EirGrid, the ESB, Airtricity, Engineers Ireland, the Irish Academy of Engineering, IBEC, the ICTU and Forfás, as well as Senator Feargal Quinn. In addition, a previous Oireachtas committee reported in June 2006 that "it is imperative that there should be informed debate on nuclear-generated electricity". Sadly, however, all of these calls have been disregarded for some reason or other. Mr.Duff will expand on and outline the actions we would like the committee to recommend to correct this sad and dangerous situation.
Mr. Denis Duff:
I thank the joint committee for inviting us. I will briefly go through the presentation and outline some of the issues that may have led to the calls from all of the groups mentioned by Mr. Turvey for the consideration of the use of nuclear power in Ireland. Our sources of energy are increasingly an important issue for Ireland and globally. It is an interesting topic, one which is no less contentious as a result. I will explain why we must act, outline a specific problem and briefly consider how nuclear energy can help. I will finish with three recommendations for the committee to consider.
With regard to the reasons we must act, members are aware of the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which was issued last month. There is up to a 99% certainty about the contribution of humans to the increase in global CO2 levels. The limit we want to achieve is 450 parts per million of CO2, thereby limiting global temperature increases to approximately 2 degrees Celsius. We are the first homo sapiens to be breathing CO2 at levels of 400 parts per million; the last time there were those levels of CO2 on Earth homo sapiens had not yet evolved. The implication of rising levels of CO2 beyond 450 parts per million is that the global average temperature could rise to in excess of 22 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to massive uninhabitable areas such as those around the equator and in the tropics because of high temperatures, as well as increasing desertification. It would also lead to rising sea levels. It may take hundreds or thousands of years, but if all of the ice on the Earth melted, sea levels would increase by over 200 feet, affecting most of the constituencies represented by members, including counties Mayo, Sligo and Wexford, which would be under water. London, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as the eastern seaboard of the United States, would disappear. I am trying to illustrate how this serious issue has a global impact and it will not go away. There will be an impact in Ireland because we are part of the global community.
There are increasing costs associated with the mitigation of the increase in CO2 levels.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and the ESRI estimate that by 2026 the cost of carbon will be €27 per tonne. The EPA has estimated that we will miss a minor target for 2020 by up to 25 million tonnes even if we do everything that we say we are going to do. As Members can see, the cost could be well in excess by €500 million by 2020.
We are faced with a specific problem. The Moneypoint coal generating station built instead of a nuclear generating station at Carnsore in the mid-1980s will come to its natural end of life, after 40 years, circa 2025 but there is no obvious replacement that we can see. For instance, hydro power in Ireland is effectively fully utilised. There is no more regular hydro power.
Wind energy, while it is useful and will be necessary in the future, is not suitable for base load energy as it is intermittent. For instance, when the wind does not blow no energy can be created. Therefore, wind energy cannot be used to replace Moneypoint.
Wave and tidal power will also be very useful but is intermittent and likely to be extremely expensive. The progress made in developing wave and tidal energy has been very disappointing. In our 2006 energy policy we estimated that we would have 500 MW by 2020 but it looks extremely unlikely that we will reach anything near that amount.
Gas, while it would be suitable as a baseline replacement for Moneypoint, is not as clean as a lot of people think with emissions from a gas-fired station between 40% and 60% as high in carbon as a coal-fired station. Gas would fit the bill technically and be able to supply the energy it would do so sufficiently cleanly to meet our needs post-2020.
One solution that is available at the moment is nuclear energy. This week the UK has proposed that it will build at least one station and will, more than likely, develop the plan by building eight nuclear stations over the next decade or so. Nuclear energy is acknowledged as being a low carbon option and is as clean as wind, solar and hydro energy. Nuclear power is also competitive. That is the reason the UK has opted for it and why stations are being built in the UK, China and India. There are many stations being built. In fact there are more nuclear stations being built, proposed and planned now than there were three years ago. They are also suitable in terms of size and low change.
I shall move on to talk about the reactions that my organisation is specifically interested in and thinks are game changers when it comes to nuclear power for Ireland. The committee will be aware that nuclear submarines are powered by small power plants which have an extraordinarily good record in terms of safety and reliability. People in the United State, China and India are developing power packs to make them suitable for power generation. They will be built in factory with no reactor component larger than 13 ft. in order that it can fit on a railcar or on the back of a track and be easily transported. Power packs will be built in factory, tested in factory and merely assembled on site and thereby reducing the overall site unit construction time, increased project certainty and dramatically reduced project risk and finance. Such a development will have a great impact on the final cost of its electricity. BENE has conducted a study on the matter. We believe that we can easily undercut the cost that was announced this week for the UK's new nuclear programme due to the reactor's small size and the ease of construction. A small reactor of approximately 200 MW is a suitable size for the Irish grid and is about the size of some units already operating here and smaller than some. It is capable of load following which means that it can reduce load at night, which is very important for Ireland, and can also facilitate intermittent energy. For instance, when wind energy rapidly increases the nuclear energy, if so wished, could ramp down.
We expect that the first small reactors will be built in 2019 and that they will become commercially available in 2021 or 2022. The timing is perfect in order for us to consider a replacement for Moneypoint in 2025.
In conclusion, I shall outline three recommended actions that I would like the committee to consider. First, we recommend that Ireland's energy policy includes an objective consideration of nuclear energy. Second, we hope that the committee will recommend an official study into the impact of small modular reactors as a replacement for Moneypoint. Third, we hope that the committee recommends the repeal of section 18(6) of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 which disallows the consideration or implementation of nuclear power in Ireland.
I thank Mr. Duff for his presentation. Before I hand over to members I would like to ask a question. As he mentioned, there is a huge anti-nuclear sentiment in Ireland. That is the elephant in the room and there is no point avoiding the matter. This week the UK proposed that it would build a power plant at Hinkley Point. An Taisce is seeking a judicial review of the project even though it shall be located in another country. What would be the reaction if it was proposed to build a nuclear plant here? Obviously Government policy opposes the idea, as stated by Mr. Duff earlier. Before I hand over to members, I ask him to refer to the task faced by his organisation.
Mr. Denis Duff:
The Chairman has made a very good point. I have considered the option and examined the matter. Let us say a coal-fired station with carbon capture and storage was proposed. I imagine there would still be massive opposition to such a proposal. There was massive opposition to benign generators such as wind turbines. Ireland has become a nation of objectors but perhaps we are a globe of objectors. I have formed the opinion that there would still be massive opposition even if we set aside a 20 acre bank of land and told people that we would do nothing with the land.
Nuclear power has one benefit over distributed energy systems such as wind. However, I am not trying to knock wind power but use it for comparative purposes. Wind turbines would be pervasive so, therefore, the protest will be pervasive. A nuclear power station on the site of Moneypoint, an existing power station site, would concentrate the objections on the technology and one location. We already have electricity pylons to bring energy from Moneypoint as far as Dublin and Meath so there would no longer be pervasive objections.
A number of unofficial opinion polls in the likes of www.thejournal.ie and various academic research suggests a different response to certain questions. I shall read one opinion poll from www.thejournal.ie that has been handed to me which stated that 57% of participants were in favour of considering nuclear power. BENE has travelled around the country and conducted many debates with the public and academic organisations. At the end of each debate we ask attendees to answer our opinion poll and so far we have only lost two debates but won the rest. Therefore, opposition is not as pervasive as people might imagine. However, it does exist, is very serious and must be taken into account.
I welcome BENE before the committee. Groups have congregated in community halls and hotels to object to pylons and wind energy and I would not like to attend a similar meeting with a proposal to consider nuclear energy.
I take the point made by Mr. Duff about 57% of participants in an opinion poll conducted by thejournal.ie being in favour of considering nuclear energy. It is my estimation that if a scientific poll was conducted now a significant group of people would oppose nuclear energy. Many people are greatly concerned about nuclear power and concern has been generated by global accidents and global issues that have erupted around the use of nuclear power. The benefits have been well made by the organisation. However, the 1999 Act was the result of a lot of public opinion. The main players, such as EirGrid and the energy people, have said that nuclear energy should be considered but have not gone beyond that point.
I would make the point in regard to Moneypoint. To be quite frank, I do not think the people are in a position to consider it. Judging by the reaction around the country to the erection of pylons and windmills either 500 m or a kilometre from houses, if one were to go down the road of nuclear plants there would be huge opposition. There are concerns about international disasters and the spin-offs from those disasters that have lasted for lifetimes. While I understand the detailed work done by the industry, I do not see nuclear power as a viable alternative at the moment.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. I confess I was one of those at Carnsore who objected to a nuclear power station there. I take the point about climate change and admit that since I was in Carnsore much has happened that has changed the world significantly. I am concerned about how we would sell this proposition to the people. The witnesses said they had won public debates. I confess I have not seen or heard anything about nuclear power for a long time, except for the news about the Hinkley Point nuclear power station in England which is coming on stream. I was struck by public opinion in a programme I saw. The people who live in the environs of Hinkley Point are very happy. I was struck by that because we are coming to a stage at which all our community halls are being filled with 800 or 900 people saying they do not want pylons anywhere near them. I am not sure how I would sell nuclear power to them at the moment. It seems that nuclear power has huge benefits on one side of the equation, but how do we balance that with the other side of the equation - how we deal with the waste? How has technology for dealing with the waste progressed? The global disasters that have taken place are not about the energy we get from nuclear power but about the waste. Has that issue progressed in any way?
That hardly deals with the situation of waste, if we are just exporting it. Nuclear contamination is not a respecter of borders or countries. If we have a disaster it will not respect the fact that there is a division. I am not sure if exporting it to another country is-----
Mr. Frank Turvey:
The spent fuel can be wrapped up in concrete and steel. In fact I have been involved in this business. There are drums three or four feet tall and about two and a half feet wide. The waste is contained in cement or concrete within these drums, which are quite small, and they can be exported. The fuel elements themselves, which are a different type of waste, are also exported to a supplier country where they will be reprocessed and the material used again in the latest types of reactor, which can use that waste as a fuel.
Professor Philip Walton:
On the subject of waste, one has to look at what would happen if we were to use coal as an alternative. At Moneypoint the burning of coal emits about 5 million tonnes of CO2. The nuclear industry manages its waste. It is small in volume. I do not have a great problem with its being buried in very deep mines. Even though the Moneypoint plant is scrubbed regularly and new scrubbers have been installed at a cost of €3 million, it still emits tens of thousands of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. It is spewing its waste out while the nuclear industry is managing it.
Professor Philip Walton:
The plants are very well managed and maintained, so they are not dangerous. The estimate of the number of people who die because of coal generation runs into a million per year. One has only to look at China. There was a picture in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times of the awful pollution in cities in China due to the use of coal. To show what China thinks of this, it has 17 nuclear power reactors operating at present, it is building a further 30, has plans for 59 more and proposals for a further 118. It sees the writing on the wall.
Professor Philip Walton:
I would like to respond to the point about Germany. Nuclear power has been a very controversial issue in Germany over the years. It has been on again and off again. Germany's latest decision was a knee-jerk reaction, and I would not be surprised if it changed its mind again. Because of its decision, it is importing about 8,000 MW of electricity - the equivalent of the power produced by eight generating stations. Most of that is coming from the surrounding countries of France and the Czech Republic and is largely from nuclear sources. Thus, Germany is shutting down its own plants but is bringing in energy from other nuclear power plants.
Professor Philip Walton:
No; Germany stands alone. Worldwide, there are 432 nuclear reactors, and a further 478 are either planned or proposed. That is about the same as the number that existed before the Fukushima accident, so it has not affected the numbers. Twenty-eight countries have nuclear power and 18 new countries are planning or proposing to go nuclear. Pre-Fukushima, the number was 17. Therefore, the accident has not put people off. Currently there are 70 plants under construction; before the Fukushima accident there were 62. It is interesting to look at some countries. For example, Belarus, which is right beside Ukraine, where the Chernobyl accident took place, has not had nuclear power but is planning two reactors and a further two are proposed. Ukraine, where the accident happened, has 15 and is planning two and proposing a further 11. In the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is currently building two nuclear power plants, planning two and proposing ten, and Saudi Arabia is planning 16. They see the writing on the wall that we are at peak oil and peak fossil fuels, and it is probably downhill from here on in. People must use everything they can lay their hands on, and that includes nuclear power.
Mr. Denis Duff:
I would like to address the issue raised by the Chairman and the issue of waste raised by Deputy Phelan. It is important to be aware that with regular fossil fuel power stations, waste is emitted into the atmosphere. For example, a coal fired station in Moneypoint would release 5 million tonnes of CO2 per annum, plus other gases. However, the waste or spent fuel from an equivalent sized nuclear power station would only extend to about 5 cu. m per annum. Also, we would know where that waste was, as it would be stored. It would be cooled for a number of years and then stored and we would know exactly where it was and could manage it.
Technically, there are a number of storage solutions. One would be to store the waste underground in safe geological areas. There is such a safe area being built in Finland. A similar solution has been proposed in the United States, while Sweden is also on the cusp of announcing where its geological storage areas will be. If we decide we do not want to put the waste in geological storage areas, it could be reprocessed and turned into new nuclear fuel. Another breed of reactors which may be ten or 15 years away will use this used nuclear fuel that we call waste today. They are called breeder reactors and will produce 60 times more energy from the fuel used first time around. Technically, therefore, there is a solution to the issue of waste.
Waste is not an issue that has been hugely problematic for the industry to date, although I accept it has caused huge public concern. The civil nuclear industry is probably 50 or 60 years old and, in general, no attempt is made to store spent fuel until approximately 50 years after its use. Therefore, waste is not a major issue because the quantities are small and manageable.
On the Chairman's question about advanced and emerging nations, there are a number of reactors in emerging nations. However, there are not so many in advanced nations. The United Kingdom has just announced that it is to build a reactor. Finland is building a reactor, as is France. Four are being built in the United States.
I thank the delegates for their presentations. If I recall the Latin I learned correctly, the word "bene" means good. Was this a subliminal thought when choosing a name with the acronym BENE or was it Freudian?
I find it difficult to understand why we are having this discussion. Generally, either the Government or the public would create a demand for a discussion such as this, but that has not happened in this case. While I accept that the delegates have no vested interest in the nuclear power industry, because of their experience in reactor design, construction, commissioning, operation and maintenance, it is clear that they worked in the industry. Are they still working within it?
In Ireland there are peaks and valleys in electricity usage. There is both high and low volume usage. Would the group's proposals be dependent on using an interconnector between Ireland and Britain and the interconnector between Britain and continental Europe? Are we looking at this issue in terms of having a European-wide network? If we were to have a small modular reactor, SMR, at Moneypoint, would Ireland need a parallel alternative power station in case something happened to the modular reactor?
The group has recommended that we consider the issue of nuclear energy objectively and an official study of the impact of an SMR as a replacement for the Moneypoint power station. How much would this cost and who would do it? The country can barely afford a two-bar heater. If we were to invest money in looking at the potential for developing nuclear energy reactors, would there be parallel investment in research into renewable energy resources? Could we afford to do both?
The group has suggested we recommend the repeal of section 18 of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 which states "an order under this section shall not provide for the use of nuclear fission for the generation of electricity". Is BENE seriously suggesting we propose this section be removed in advance of the studies suggested by it? I would have serious concerns in that regard.
I thank the delegation for attending. It is important that we continue to discuss all energy options regarding the country's future needs. We should not dismiss any source of energy, including nuclear energy. It is important that any modern economy or society debate the issues publicly and consider all options. Unfortunately for the nuclear sector, there is significant negativity surrounding it. Its positive aspects are its competitiveness, the use of clean technology and its capacity. However, the public's perception is that there is significant negativity surrounding safety issues owing to what has happened in the past, including explosions in places such as Fukushima and Chernobyl. These disasters are in the minds of members of the public in Ireland and globally and we must acknowledge that they form a huge barrier for the sector to overcome. Deputy Moynihan has mentioned that the appetite of the people for nuclear energy is questionable at this time, but that does not mean we should not debate the issue. For this reason it is important that BENE put its proposals before us in order that we can debate them and inform ourselves. That is welcome. We should not dismiss proposals out of hand because technology has moved on. The climate change debate will provide huge challenges for this country and the rest of the world.
There is an ongoing debate in Ireland on the issue of renewable energy, with objections being raised to wind farm proposals and so on. Some people who are totally opposed to the use of nuclear energy are also opposed to wind farms. I see this as the great dilemma for Irish society. We need to ask ourselves from where will we get the energy we need to sustain us into the future. Some suggest we will become a net exporter of renewable energy supplies, but I do not see how that will happen if we continue to have so many objections. It seems nobody wants to have anything in his or her area. We can expect a significant energy demand in the future, but where will we source that energy?
Given that interconnectors have already been developed between the North of Ireland and Scotland and the east of Ireland and Wales and it is proposed to develop an interconnector between the south of Ireland and France, we are probably already importing nuclear generated energy supplies. Will the delegates clarify whether that is the case? Are people happy to do this? Obviously, they are if we are already doing so.
Is there a need for another nuclear power station, given that there be such significant interconnectivity? This is a small island and if we are properly interconnected - we are isolated currently - would the easier option not be to import the energy supplies needed in the future?
I do not know enough about Moneypoint. The group states it will reach end of life in 2025. I am not sure what proposals exist in that regard. The group states that a conversion to nuclear energy would be an option. I am from Waterford and I am aware that in Great Island, in Wexford in the south east, they are already quite advanced in a project to convert from oil to gas and increase the capacity of generation, from 240 MW to 460 MW. Would something similar at Moneypoint be a solution rather than taking the nuclear option? Those are merely some points of debate and questions.
Dr. Tom O'Flaherty:
Deputy Coffey made some very good comments. There is a real problem which must be recognised that Moneypoint has to be replaced. It is very big, much bigger than Great Island. Coal must be discontinued and there is no solution clearly decided at this point for what will replace Moneypoint.
Interconnection, which was raised by Deputy Colreavy, is there in the background. Whether there is interconnection or not, there are issues about how much generation we must have in this country in any case.
I recognise completely the elephant in the room, as mentioned by the Chairman and as emphasised by Deputy Moynihan, is that public acceptance would be enormously difficult to achieve. There is a strong element of burying one's head in the sand in stating that, because public acceptance would be a problem ten years from now, we will not even think about it and we will rule nuclear energy out and hope that something will turn up to solve our problem when on the face of it, technically, and, we are fairly confident, economically, nuclear energy would be a valid solution. Our plea is to recommend that nuclear energy be considered as part of the planning of energy.
The problem of section 18(6) of the 1999 Act is, I would say to Deputy Colreavy, a chicken-and-egg situation. One could say we can do all this looking at it and leave that provision there, and that could happen. The reality is that there has been no official agency because of that provision, which considers it to be within its responsibility to look at whether nuclear energy could be a good idea. That is why it is left to a purely voluntary group such as ourselves to bring the subject forward at all. This is a real deficiency in public planning. That is why we believe it is important that the committee recommend at least that nuclear energy be included on its merits as part of the consideration of energy planning and, ideally, that the section of the 1999 Act to which I refer would be repealed, in the short term rather than in the long term.
There were one or two other points. I mentioned the interconnector. On the backup that Deputy Colreavy raised, there always has to be in the generation system enough back-up so that if any station is lost, either for a short time or even for many months, the system can carry on. Obviously, there would be a cost penalty in losing a big station but there must be provision to keep the lights on.
As to who would meet the cost, it would have to be a commercial proposition funded, we believe, by the private sector, by a nuclear supplier from abroad or by a consortium of that kind as in the case of the UK currently. There are many arguments about what is the best way to do that.
For the purposes of clarification, I asked not who would fund the building of a nuclear energy station, but how much would it cost and who would carry out this objective considering the group has recommended that we should adopt and an official study into the impact of SMRs as a replacement for Moneypoint.
Dr. Tom O'Flaherty:
We have been recommending for some few years that an expert group be set up. It is part of our submission that an expert group, including, I am sure, independent specialists from other countries on both sides of the argument, should be established to look at this question, and that is how it would be evaluated in the kind of deal that would be necessary.
I would imagine that such would be a fairly extensive and expensive piece of work. My concern would be that if we are putting all these resources into one direction of inquiry, we will not be looking at matters such as renewable energy strategies.
Dr. Tom O'Flaherty:
It would not inhibit all the work that is being done on renewables at all. It is not as if fundamental research would have to be done. It would be a study team that would hold meetings, prepare reports and use technological information that is in the public domain around the world and apply it to the Irish situation. It would want a secretariat and that kind of thing, but it would not involve big money in terms of research.
I welcome the presentation made here and thank the group for attending today. I estimate there is collectively over 100 years of experience between them in their sectors and I very much appreciate them coming here and sharing their knowledge.
It is good that we are having a discussion about something which is ultimately long-term planning. We do not have enough of that in this country. Too often, it is five-year programmes for Government or budgets that might look 12 or 14 months in advance. We do not have enough of long-term planning. It is encouraging that the group is raising something here that will be an issue, in particular, from 2025, but that relates to much further in the future as well. I understand it is something that we need to address much sooner but it is important.
I welcome an objective debate on this. We need to be looking at every option when we talk about future energy generation and because we do not necessarily agree with something, it does not mean that we should not have a discussion on it. In terms of discussing future energy, we need to consider all of our options, including nuclear energy, and check both the viability and pros and cons of it. My personal view is it is not a suitable option for Ireland. That said, I am open to hearing the arguments and the views.
There are a couple of points I picked up on earlier. There was a list of countries mentioned as expanding in nuclear energy and none of them hopped out at me as being great bastions of democracy. China, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Belarus and the Ukraine were all listed. Maybe at that point there were a few alarm bells ringing.
I hope nobody in those countries is watching the committee meeting on the live stream. France was mentioned. When we discuss this issue we need to focus on the alternatives. There is massive potential in this country in terms of tidal wave energy and one hopes that with improved technology this might be a more realistic option by 2025. There is further potential in hydroelectric energy and micro-generation.
The event at Fukushima was referred to as an accident. It certainly was a disaster. What happened at Chernobyl was an accident in that man-made errors brought it about. At Fukushima, however, although more provisions might have been put in place to prevent what happened, a natural disaster was the main contributing factor. In the overall discussion about nuclear energy, no matter how much safety provision is put in place one cannot allow for such events as massive seismic activity. With regard to Moneypoint, for example, if at some stage in the future there were to be a huge seismic event in the north Atlantic - or near the Canary Islands, an area often cited as requiring only time for such an event to occur - I can imagine the disaster that would ensue if a massive tsunami hit the west coast of the country. Such possibilities must be factored in. Another point is that countries such as France, which has major nuclear power generation, also has considerable military security, which we do not. In the post 9-11 world that is a consideration that must be included.
Could we get some more information on the small modular reactors, SMRs? What is their capacity, the associated costs and the timescale involved, and how do these differ from those of conventional stations we are used to, such as Chernobyl and Sellafield, or from some of the newer stations being built in the UK? I refer to the 1999 Act and the repeal of the section in question. I take on board what was said about the chicken and the egg. If that provision were still in place, how much could the committee do and how might the debate be informed?
I will broaden Deputy Griffin's point. We must have objective consideration of nuclear energy and must be very well informed. In addition, we have a responsibility with regard to how we will deliver energy to future generations. It is not just about who is sitting here around the table. Where the debate might be won or lost is in the climate change element. I would like to see more studies done and have much more detail on how the equation of nuclear energy could solve our climate change problems. On that point, have the witnesses considered going before the environment committee to state how nuclear energy could deal with the climate change issue? That would help to further both their case and the climate change question.
Professor Philip Walton:
There were a lot of questions. I am glad Deputy Griffin mentioned long-term planning, which is what we want. We are asking for long-term consideration of this point. The Deputy asked for examples of democratic countries with nuclear power. There are two very good ones in Scandinavia. Finland has had plebiscites about whether to go for nuclear energy and has decided to go ahead. It also had a plebiscite on a waste repository, which is being built at the same time. Sweden gets about 30% of its electricity from ten plants. It had a plebiscite and was considering shutting down the plants. The unions were up in arms and in the end the decision was reversed, with Sweden continuing to use nuclear power.
Deputy Colreavy spoke about SMRs and asked whether back-up would be required. This is exactly what is required for wind energy. Wind energy across Ireland can fail totally and there must be back-up, which must be costed in when considering the price of wind energy. A group of SMRs would be involved and not all of them would fail. There might be six of them, but the chances of all six failing at once would be negligible. Each one provides approximately 200 megawatts. If one fails that could easily be made up within the system.
Mr. Denis Duff:
There were quite a number of other questions. Three or four Deputies have very sensibly recommended that we consider all options. It is not enough to say we would like this or that to work. Let us examine the proposals and see if they will work. Suppose we get to the 2020s and find that wave energy is not much further advanced than it is at present. Suppose we find that, as today, gas energy is not clean enough. Suppose we find that hydroelectric energy is fully utilised in this country. Where will we go? There is a long lead time in developing any technology. There are very few technologies and we can see none available at this time. Potentially there is pump storage, such as the offshore Spirit of Ireland schemes that people would have heard about, but there has been very little progress since these were first mooted five years ago. We could have carbon capture and storage plants - coal-fired or gas-fired stations with carbon capture and storage. That is in design, but there is no guarantee it will become an available technology by 2025 because it is not looking very healthy. We do not know what its costs would be.
It is a very difficult issue. We can see no alternative at present. It will be a difficult fight but this is something we should really start to work on now. Let us examine the facts and see what our options are and what we need to do. Do we need to educate ourselves in the first place and then the public? Are we going to go down an entirely different road, take our chances and see what happens? I do not think it would cost too much money to have an independent group looking at the option of an SMR to replace Moneypoint. An energy policy in 2006 considered nuclear energy but summarily dismissed it on the grounds that some people would say the proposal was dubious at best. There is not much cost involved in looking at the options, but there is a lot of cost involved in ignoring them.
Mr. Frank Turvey:
There was a question about safety. I do not know if members are aware of this, but a study was done not too long ago that compared accidental deaths at all types of station - coal, oil, hydroelectric and gas stations. The bottom line was that there were fewer deaths per unit of electricity generated by nuclear power than by all of the others. If one were to look at deaths by accident alone, one would see that nuclear energy has the best record.
Mr. Denis Duff:
There is one question we have not addressed, which is about the impact of seismic events and large natural disasters. I will tie in the point made about the post-9-11 situation and terrorist activities. The designers of small modular reactors have taken this into account. We would love to give the committee a presentation on them at some stage, or perhaps the environment committee, an excellent suggestion from Deputy Phelan. Members could see that these reactors would be built where they are seismically insulated, perhaps in a large tub of water. In the event that all power was lost to these reactors, they can cool themselves naturally, without any external power, because of their size and design. Therefore, the type of accident that happened at Fukushima has been taken into account.
The reactor at Chernobyl where another accident occurred was of a completely different design, one which would not be allowed in Ireland or anywhere else in the West. It would be physically impossible for such an accident to occur at one of the reactors to which we are referring.
On the question of small modular reactors, SMRs, versus nuclear power stations, Deputy Griffin has inquired how long construction takes. The United Kingdom is building what is called a European pressurised reactor, EPR, and hopes to complete the project in eight years. The projects involving these reactors have always extended beyond their design-construction periods. The one in Finland is wandering on and on, while the one in France is going to be late. I have no doubt that the reactor project in the United Kingdom will also be late. That is one of the benefits of SMRs. These reactors are built and tested in factories and then assembled on site. The estimated construction time is between 18 months to three years and depends on the manufacture and size. Those involved are much more confident that they will be able to achieve these build times. SMRs change the entire nuclear scenario for countries such as Ireland.
Mr. Denis Duff:
There are two ways of looking at cost. The first involves the cost per megawatt or per megawatt hour. In the United Kingdom they have reached a contract price of £92.50 per megawatt hour. This equates to 9.25 pence per unit. Estimating the cost in Ireland is difficult because we are only an amateur group. From our estimations, however, the cost would depend on the level of support from the Government and the people. That support would influence the project in terms of the level of certainty with regard to it proceeding. Other issues which must be factored in are the likelihood of protests during the construction phase, whether construction would be delayed and whether there would be Government support while construction was taking place. These all impact on the cost of finance and have a knock-on effect in terms of the cost of electricity. We have estimated that if everything went really well - we do not expect that it will - we could generate energy for 5 cent per unit. If everything did not go so well, we still estimate that the cost would be 15% lower than that relating to the large reactor in the United Kingdom.
I presume members are aware that the east-west interconnector is only used to export energy supplies perhaps 2% of the time. The remainder of the time it is either idle or being used to import energy supplies. We import 50 times more energy via the interconnector than we export. If we were to change the balance to such an extent that energy would be cheaper here than in the United Kingdom, we could export energy supplies via the interconnector. Rather than Ireland being obliged to pay another €500 million, perhaps the United Kingdom will pay for the next interconnector built. We are also liable for a transmission charge and there are losses across the interconnector. Instead of taking power supplies at cost from the United Kingdom and absorbing transmission losses and the cost of the interconnector, we could be supplying that jurisdiction with energy supplies.
Mr. Denis Duff:
We did not carry out a study of a single SMR. Instead, our study relates to a pair of such reactors. These reactors are small and generate 180 MW each. We are of the view, therefore, that provision should be made for at least 360 MW, which equates to two units. We have arrived at a cost which is dependent on finance but which could be as low as €1.4 billion. This compares to the cost of the single plant in the United Kingdom to which I refer of £14 billion.
The level of interest in the debate has increased as our deliberations have proceeded. However, we must bring matters to a conclusion for today. I sincerely thank Mr. Turvey, Mr. O'Flaherty, Mr. Duff and Professor Walton for putting the argument in favour of nuclear energy and dealing with members' question head on. They have brought home to us the possibilities to be considered in the context of changing technologies. I propose, with the agreement of members, to send the transcript of the meeting to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte. We will consider our response to the points raised during our discussion in private session. I again thank our guests.