Since it was set up in 1968 to give ESB an option to build a nuclear power station in Ireland, the Nuclear Project Group had recommended that light water reactor (LWR) technology should be chosen and had evaluated technical, safety, fuel and cost aspects of the project, writes Engineers Ireland Fellow Frank Geary.

A site was selected at Carnsore in Co Wexford and close liaisons were established with the government’s newly founded licensing authority, the Nuclear Energy Board, and with the European Commission. (Part I can be read here.)

Headline in newspaper cut-out from the 1970s

Progress of the project

The 1970s were a very dynamic period and many changes ensued – political, technological and economic. They had big effects on ESB’s proposed nuclear project, which experienced a roller-coaster ride during the period as several significant developments affected its likelihood of proceeding.

For Ireland to accommodate the smallest commercially available nuclear reactor, at about 400MW, an interconnected power grid covering the whole island was needed. Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) was agreeable to this.  

Unfortunately, the north-south interconnector fell victim to the Troubles. It was repaired, but when it was destroyed for the third time, the planners of ESB and NIE were reluctantly forced to revert to planning their power systems separately during the 1970s, although the interconnector was later restored. 

The first major oil crisis in 1974, which cut off oil supplies to the country and led to major price increases, sharply emphasised Ireland’s overdependence on imported heavy fuel oil.

On the other hand, the welcome discovery of gas off Kinsale in 1971 offered the prospect of a new native energy source. The gas field entered production in 1978 and the government agreed to make a large part of its output available to ESB for power generation.

The big price rises due to the oil crisis also saw an end to the rapid growth of electricity demand in Ireland. While there was some recovery in the mid-1970s, further crises and a further slowdown in growth in demand for electricity led to the conclusion that the plant should be further postponed.

Meanwhile, the decade saw big advances in reactor technology, with all manufacturers learning how to get much more power from their reactors. This meant that the output of even their smallest units increased sharply, so that by the late 1970s it was about 650MW, a real problem for Ireland. (Even today, the largest generating unit on the ESB system is about 450MW.)

Although the calculated lifetime cost of nuclear generation was competitive, as noted previously the overall cost of nuclear power lies mostly in the capital cost of the plant.

In addition, the construction time needed to build the station is very long, up to 10 years from the date of contract signing. This combination of factors raises big questions for the financing of nuclear projects, with large capital expenditure needed several years before the plant begins to operate and generate any return.

The late 1970s were a period of significant inflation with interest rates in excess of 15% per annum. The Nuclear Project Group prepared detailed cash flow projections analysing the large expenditure needed during the long construction period and the high interest charges that would arise before the benefits of very low operating costs could be realised.

For ESB senior management, the prospect of carrying such huge capital and interest charges for so long on a relatively small balance sheet was considered to be highly problematic.

Final decisions

The combination of these adverse factors in the external environment and the major difficulties arising from the size and cost of the project were too much and, in mid-1978, ESB senior management concluded that nuclear power was no longer a viable option for its future generation planning. Instead, a coal-fired plant in Moneypoint, Co Clare, would be the basis of ESB baseload power supply.

Moneypoint, Co Clare

Following this decision, the Nuclear Project Group was gradually wound down over several months. Most of its members moved to other ESB projects, while some sought opportunities elsewhere.

After further study and consideration of the overall power situation, the government agreed in 1979 that ESB planning for the 1990s should proceed on the basis of coal and gas, with the nuclear project being deferred indefinitely.

Popular opposition to nuclear power on environmental grounds had emerged from 1974 onwards and had led to multiple debates and demonstrations, but this concern was never fully resolved.

ESB’s decision not to proceed with the project on economic grounds was made (but not published) before the first Carnsore music festival in 1978, so, perhaps sadly, the urban myth that the musicians and people who gathered there that year stopped the nuclear project is unfounded. The Carnsore site is now (since 2003) the location of an ESB wind farm, with 14 wind turbines and a total output of 11.9MW.

Wind farm, Carnsore, Co Wexford

Concluding remarks

Despite its high profile, the nuclear project was never the central part of ESB’s generation planning process. Faced with a serious over-reliance on imported heavy fuel oil, the Nuclear Project Group was set up to give the company an option to choose an additional fuel source. For the decade of the 1970s, the group met that objective.

By the end of that period the world had changed. Ireland had found a significant new native energy source, Kinsale Gas; changes in the nuclear industry had increased the size of even the smallest commercial reactors beyond the capacity of the Irish electricity grid.

The rate of increase of Irish electricity demand was very uncertain and the financial structure of a nuclear plant created serious problems for ESB. The decision in 1978 by the organisation to exclude the nuclear option from its long-term generation planning considerations was clearly the right one.

The achievements of the Nuclear Project Group are, however, worth noting. Starting from scratch, the group quickly focused on using light water reactor (LWR) technology and established a high degree of serious credibility with the major plant designers.

They prepared detailed technical and commercial specifications for the nuclear reactor island, which were sent for review to the experts of the Nuclear Energy Board and the European Commission.

A suitable site for the project was selected and investigated and, again, the site report was submitted to the NEB and the European Commission. When it was needed, future enrichment services to preserve ESB’s nuclear options were secured.

The group liaised with government agencies and carried out an extensive public information programme. They closely monitored nuclear developments internationally and kept ESB senior management advised on the latest situation regarding reactor size, costs, etc, thus ensuring that the eventual decision to abandon the nuclear option could be made on a well-informed basis.

The 1970s were a strange and unsettled period in Ireland and worldwide. In Ireland it was a time of serious strikes, social unrest and high inflation, with widespread public demonstrations on many topics.

The divided city of Berlin epitomised the Cold War

Similar conditions existed in many other countries but predominantly it was a decade of the Cold War. The threat of nuclear destruction hung over the world like a cloud.

People from continental Europe bought properties in west Cork and Kerry on the grounds that they would be the safest places to be when Europe was obliterated. Television and, more powerfully, cinema newsreels, regularly featured nuclear bomb testing and blooming mushroom clouds.

The 'Doomsday Clock' on the cover of the bimonthly Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, counting down to world destruction, showed three minutes to midnight frequently when international tensions were high.

It was no wonder, in that atmosphere, that all nuclear issues became matters of public concern and that the threat of nuclear destruction was conflated with the very different nuclear power technology (which cannot cause a nuclear explosion).

 Although the safety record of LWR power plants over the past 50 years is extremely good, the popular perception of nuclear power is hugely influenced by the few major accidents that have occurred.

The catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986 and its devastating long-term consequences continue to dominate peoples' view of nuclear power. (The facts that Chernobyl used an inherently unstable reactor type that would not even be considered in the west, and had no containment building, do not lessen peoples' horror.)

Aerial view on residential area of abandoned Pripyat city in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine

The later decision of the Dáil in 1999 (long after ESB had abandoned any nuclear plans) to legally prohibit the production of electricity for the Irish national grid by nuclear fission was presumably influenced by this confusion but, nonetheless, it looks very odd, given that any such plan is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Fifty years on, nuclear power is still a contentious issue. After a period of significant expansion in the 1970s, it seemed to run aground and it never fulfilled the expectations that it would become the major source of electricity for future generations.

Although it provides a big input to base-load power needs in several countries, it is only in France that it has become the dominant source of electricity.

Many of the first-generation nuclear plants are now at or approaching the end of their design lives but in most places they are not being replaced by nuclear units. The small number of new plants being built at present in Europe – all using LWR designs – seem to be experiencing serious construction delays and cost overruns.

At present hopes are being expressed for the prospects of a new design family of smaller reactors but the earliest date for an operating prototype is about 2030 and a commercial plant will probably be 10 years later.

Political attitudes to nuclear power differ widely. Germany, Japan and California have decided on the early retirement of their present nuclear stations.

China is now one of the world’s largest users and is expanding its nuclear power rapidly (based on western LWR technology) to reduce its dependence on polluting coal. The European Commission is considering nuclear power’s role as a bridge to the availability of fully renewable electricity.

China has more than 50 conventional nuclear power plants, such as this, and the experimental thorium reactor in Wuwei will be a first

Despite not producing CO2 emissions, it is not clear at present whether nuclear power will have a significant role to play internationally in electricity generation as we approach our 2050 emission targets. It is unlikely to feature in Irish plans in the foreseeable future.

ESB Nuclear Project personnel, 1968-1978:

  • JJ (Jimmy) Kelly, chief engineer, later chief executive
  • Dr AG (Alf) Kelly, chief project engineer, later director
  • Sean F Coakley, head of design and development, Project Department and head of the Nuclear Project Group
  • Christopher O’Farrelly, nuclear design and development (later in NPG)

Engineers of the Nuclear Project Group, 1968-1970:

  • Brian Caffrey,
  • Frank Geary,
  • Jim McCrohan,
  • PJ Pat Murphy
  • Dick Doody,
  • Tony Higgins,
  • Pat Ryan,
  • Michael Snee
  • John D Cunningham (chemist),
  • Tom Field,
  • Dr Vincent Flanagan (reactor physicist),
  • Seamus Kenny,
  • Frank Conroy

From the mid-1970s

  • Paul Doyle,
  • George Ebrill (chemist),
  • Jim Maguire,
  • Conor McMahon,
  • Paul Murray

Author: Frank Geary, BE, CEng, FIEI. (With thanks to Brian Caffrey.) (Part I can be read here.)