Viewpoint: How to make the Emerald Isle green

01 February 2021

The Republic of Ireland has a legislative ban on nuclear power, but the climate emergency is an opportunity to look with fresh eyes at this untapped potential. 18for0 estimates that introducing 18% nuclear energy to the country's electricity mix could eliminate fossil fuels from the power sector and achieve decarbonisation by 2037. 18for0 is a group of professionals, all volunteers, concerned about the credibility of Ireland's current proposals to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Jerry Waugh, one of its members, describes the group's preliminary study on how this could be achieved.

Jerry Waugh of 18for0

"Ireland’s commitments to meet ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets have been missed by a large margin - in 2018, for example, they were higher than in 2013, the start of the accounting period for its current EU binding commitment - and the national strategy for power generation in the government’s Climate Action Plan 2019 (CAP19) is not sufficient to keep Ireland on a pathway to become a net-zero emissions society.

A 2018 Irish government review of the national performance in reaching the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals indicated poor performance. Firstly, Ireland would not meet the EU 2020 emissions reduction targets and, secondly, its current dependence on fossil fuel imports is expensive and environmentally unsustainable.

The main features of CAP19 for power generation in 2030 (compared to 2020), include: renewable electricity supply increasing from 30% to 70%; all coal, peat and oil-fired power stations close; however, gas-powered stations and interconnections will significantly increase in capacity.

Limited prospects

It is widely recognised that there is no plan in place to decarbonise the power sector by 2050 and so, innovative change to current energy policy to allow a hybrid electricity system powered, mainly, by renewables and nuclear energy is urgently required.

CAP19 contains no specific policy statement on how to keep annual power sector emissions on a reduction pathway beyond 2030, and the transmission system operator, EirGrid, has described the implementation of CAP19 as a significant challenge.

Various options beyond 2030 have been hypothesised, including using surplus renewable energy to produce biofuels, synthetic gas, hydrogen or a ‘Power-to-x’ technology, but these have not yet been proven at scale and their commercial viability for power generation is still uncertain.

Lowering emissions

Simply extending CAP19 policy actions beyond 2030 would essentially lock the Irish electricity generating system into using natural gas to satisfy the shortfall from intermittent sources. This would have the effect of keeping annual emissions from the electricity sector at around 2030 levels (4.9 million tonnes) until 2050, which is significantly above the level required for a net-zero emissions energy system.

Introducing nuclear would reduce annual emissions to 0.9 million tonnes by 2050. This would place Ireland firmly on a path to a net-zero emissions energy system.

Legal barriers

There are two legal barriers to developing a nuclear power programme in Ireland; nuclear power stations cannot be authorised under The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 and the use of nuclear fission for the generation of electricity is not permitted under The Electricity Regulation Act 1999. In both cases, these barriers are single lines of legislation whose removal would not impact on the rest of the acts.

An effective legal and regulatory framework would be required for a successful nuclear power programme. Sufficient assistance would be available to Ireland in setting up the required frameworks and a great deal of worldwide experience exists through organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a multitude of nuclear regulators that cooperate at an international level. Countries, such as USA and Canada, have recently collaborated on the licensing of nuclear reactors. And international organisations, such as World Nuclear Association, are working on options for further international cooperation in reactor design and evaluation.

Starting from here

Fortunately, amending the acts currently impeding nuclear power generation in Ireland is likely to be legislatively straightforward, and Ireland is well positioned to establish the legal and regulatory framework necessary for a successful nuclear power programme.

Many of the National Strategic Outcomes outlined in the National Planning Framework would support the development of nuclear energy in Ireland. This is a strong mandate to formally investigate nuclear power as a low-carbon energy technology, based on its sustainability, positive impact on local communities and security of supply, and competitiveness.

What it would cost

The 18for0 report has assessed the economics of the Irish electricity system from 2030 to 2050, assuming CAP19 has been fully implemented by 2030, under two strategies.

Strategy 1 - extending CAP19 - the current default position, in which intermittent renewables account for all the growth in power plant. Storage and interconnection would expand as predicted by EirGrid for 2040 but natural gas capacity is retained at 2030 levels.

Strategy 2 - includes nuclear as a direct replacement for fossil fuel plant after 2030 - whereby intermittent renewables are retained at near-2030 levels.

The report concludes that fully implementing CAP19 by 2030 will increase the production cost of electricity to EUR112/MWh. This can be reduced to EUR98/MWh by 2050 if Strategy 1 is implemented, whereas it can be reduced to EUR85/MWh through implementation of Strategy 2, which includes nuclear power. The cumulative production cost of electricity from 2030 to 2050 is estimated to be over EUR6 billion less in the strategy that includes nuclear compared to simply extending CAP19.

The report also estimates that the capital cost of Strategy 2 is EUR2.3 billion lower than that of Strategy 1. These estimates exclude system costs, resulting from increased outlays for distribution and transmission, balancing costs, and the cost of back-up generation. In our transition to a low-carbon energy system, some of these system costs are unavoidable. Including nuclear energy in the mix provides the opportunity for Ireland to minimise these additional system costs while maintaining a path to net zero.

Site selection

Previous work by the Electricity Supply Board in the 1970s identified five sites in Ireland as being suitable to site a nuclear power station. At present, all coal, peat and oil plants, and several gas plants are scheduled to close before 2030. These sites and their surroundings should be explored as areas for development, tapping into existing local engineering skill sets and an existing grid infrastructure.

What Next?

Ireland must implement a wider range of options than is outlined in the current Climate Action Plan to achieve the required carbon emissions reductions in an affordable and environmentally responsible manner that also retains stability and security in the electricity grid.

18for0 aims to present the societal, environmental and economic benefits of nuclear energy, set out in the report, to a wider Irish audience and to outline Ireland’s capability to operate a robust nuclear power programme.

It's time to start a national conversation about the future of Irish electricity production and the potential role nuclear power may play. The rewards are too great - and too urgent - to ignore."

The 18for0 preliminary study, Nuclear Energy Development in Ireland, is here.