Sustainable Energy, Environmental Protection and the Nuclear Energy Question

A conference entitled Sustainable Energy and Environmental Protection takes place from tomorrow, 12th August, 2009, at Dublin City University and I am putting the final touches to my presentation, which I will deliver on Friday 14th August. My presentation is entitled ‘The Very Basics of Sustainability–an Alternative Viewpoint’. I am in favour of continuing to evaluate all of the options that are available to humankind. I favour allowing the best technologies to win out in the marketplace, but subject to global coordination and regulation that would ensure safety and would prevent exploitation of the common environment by some in a way that would be unfair to others who share the environment.

Whether or not nuclear power should be exploited is an emotive issue for those who oppose it in Ireland and many other places. However, there are no easy answers in addressing the ongoing needs of humanity and it is my belief that nuclear power must be considered and must be permitted, but subject to the necessary levels of regulation and monitoring so as to ensure that the rights of all members of the human population are protected.

In 2008 I was very taken aback by a leakage that occurred at a nuclear power plant in France and I wrote an article, which I sent to an Irish newspaper. The item was not taken up by the paper and I let the matter drop. I have included the article below, exactly as I wrote it.

The Nuclear Power Question

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to the notion of nuclear power. As a Mechanical Engineer who has specialised in the topic of energy use I appreciate the problems that we, humankind, face on planet Earth at this time. There are no easy answers. I’m not sure that I know what the right questions are, but I would be very uneasy with the thought that any question should be taboo. In my opinion the nuclear power question should not be taboo in Ireland. In France, a country just across the water from us, nuclear power is very much a reality. Around the globe, nuclear power is a reality.

Imagine the following first sentence introducing an article on page 4 of a local Irish newspaper, under the theme ‘Society’ and with a label (not the headline) “The event of the day”: “Yesterday afternoon a curt statement from the Prefectures of DrĂ´me and Vaucluse indicated that a nuclear incident had occurred on the site of Tricastin the previous night.” For the prefectures you could imagine any Irish county council, for example Kildare County Council, and for Tricastin you could imagine Newbridge (my own town) and its surrounding areas. I was on holidays in France and read such an article in Midi Libre on 9th July, 2008.

It seems that water containing dissolved uranium was released into the environment. From the subsequent reports I heard on the radio and read in the papers it appears there was a leak of water containing dissolved uranium and that the secondary containment that had been designed to catch any such leak was itself in poor repair at the time so the uranium-bearing water escaped. It also appears from the reports that there was a significant delay of some hours between awareness of the occurrence and the notification of the authorities by those responsible for the plant.

It could be that humankind has a so-called dodo mentality: an inability to recognise and evaluate threats to survival that could be avoided by learning from experience and adapting behaviour. We may not be sufficiently intelligent to avoid becoming extinct. The information I have picked up from the media in relation to this nuclear incident has left me astonished. It seems to me that the probability of this incident occurring was relatively high and to me that is unacceptable. This seems to suggest that the dodo mentality does in fact exist (and here I am referring to all of humankind, not just one country that happened to provide this particular recent example). From what I have been able to make out, the incident was not in itself a highly dangerous one. Over quite a short period of time the water that escaped would be diluted and all of the dissolved uranium should be dissipated, reaching concentration levels that are normal in the environment.

My concern is: how can technologically advanced countries tolerate such apparently low standards in relation to something so important? Vigilance and standards in the nuclear industry need to be extremely high. Enforcement must be sufficient to ensure that all risks are maintained below defined levels. Lack of sufficient funds to maintain an installation properly, cutbacks to maximise profitability or simply bad management should not be capable of being a cause of a heightened risk developing or subsisting. To whom does the monitoring authority answer? In relation to the most serious potential nuclear risks there are no frontiers, in the sense of barriers, on Earth. An empowered and fully representative world authority on energy use and its impact is needed. It will not be realised in the short term. However, the time window available for addressing such matters is quite short. I just hope we are not, collectively, dodos.