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Opinion – Can Paddies split atoms?

It is no secret that our current efforts to provide energy for humanity is failing. We are quickly burning through the supply of non-renewable energy sources such as oil, coal and gas, and the forms of renewable energy we have now aren’t effective enough to sustain our current consumption rate on their own. Efforts are being made to convince us and to show us how to reduce our consumption of energy on an individual level, in order to make a larger, collective difference. Call me a pessimist but I, for one, do not see this campaign succeeding in any significant manner, and can’t imagine it ever solving the problem in the long-term. Despite it being probably the most ethical and justifiable approach, as it discourages greed and self-indulgence, it just isn’t enough, and it’s being negated by the growing population anyway, with Ireland having the highest birth rate in the EU in 2016, as well as the lowest death rate.

So we have a problem, and it applies to everybody. The electricity bill and the cost of diesel can only go up the way we’re going! But let’s not panic yet, because there is a solution.

At the moment, nuclear energy isn’t a thing in Ireland; energy production from nuclear fission is prohibited by law. Most of us will remember what an atom is from Junior Cert science; Nuclear fission is the splitting of an atom of Uranium, element number 92 on the periodic table of elements, with the release of a vast amount of heat. This heat then boils water, which produces steam; the steam turns a turbine, and electrical energy is extracted from this, the same way its harnessed from a wind turbine.

Comparing energy production, nuclear fission trumps every fossil fuel out there. Just one uranium fuel pellet, roughly the size of the tip of an adult’s little finger, contains the same amount of energy as 149 gallons of oil, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 1,780 pounds of coal. It also does this while only producing a fraction of the waste. Over the past 50 years of nuclear energy, the entire volume of waste can fit into a football field sized container that is 10 yards deep. That is astounding compared to the volume of waste produced by the other energy industries on an annual basis.

Granted, there is the issue of disposing of this waste, because the radioactive stuff you’re left with after cooking a batch of fission cookies can’t be just thrown in the bin. It has been speculated that it may be possible to reuse this material and apply it in some way, but nothing definitive yet on that front. Sub-seabed disposal is a potential option for disposing of the waste; another is storing it in underground repositories. I can only speak for myself when I say that laying a few barrels of radioactive waste per year at the bottom of the Mariana trench seems preferable to the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that is being pumped into our atmosphere every month by the coal and oil companies, causing those big holes in ozone layer and contributing to the dreaded climate change we all hear so much about.

Bottom line: these sources of energy are damaging our environment in ways that will take hundreds of years to remedy even if we cease with these methods completely today. We must preserve our world and find our energy somewhere else. Nuclear energy is a viable alternative. It produces far less waste and while uranium is also limited, it is in far greater supply than the other resources. It is nearly as common as tin and zinc and can be found easily in minerals and in the crust of the Earth. Donegal and Galway allegedly have significant uranium deposits, but the mining of it is also illegal, in case you were thinking of running down to the local co-op shop for a pickaxe.

If we ever want to have nuclear energy in Ireland, however, there are a lot of people that need convincing. A survey conducted in 2007 indicated that only 27 percent of Irish citizens were in favour of an “increased use” of nuclear energy, but while we don’t produce our own nuclear energy, a decent fraction of the energy we import is produced in nuclear plants elsewhere in the EU. People don’t seem to like the idea of it. An amusing example of this lies in a story my Leaving Certificate physics teacher told us: On a flight home he happened to be seated next to a friendly elderly lady who initiated joyful conversation with him almost immediately after take-off. The conversation was healthy and flourishing until such time as she asked him what he did for a living. He responded truthfully, and at the time he was a nuclear physicist in Switzerland. The conversation immediately died, and it became apparent that she did not like his answer and thought he was a real-life manifestation of Mr. Burns working in an evil institution hell-bent on destroying the world as we know it.

The reasons behind the negative stigma are pretty obvious: nuclear disasters. There have been a number of nuclear disasters over the years that have had drastic impacts on people’s lives, the prime examples being the explosion of reactor 4 in Chernobyl in 1986, and the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant in Japan in 2011. In answer to this, I would argue that the past nuclear disasters should not influence our future decisions too much. We must learn from the mistakes, not be intimidated by them.

Ireland has no prior experience in nuclear power stations, but what we do have is some of the most highly educated and competent workforce in Europe, a relatively mild climate posing little to no threat of catastrophic natural disasters for the power plants, an adaptable, powerful and innovative up and coming generation capable of great things, and the feckin craic lads c’mon to f…

To finish up, I’ll talk about Spiderman. Remember back in Spiderman 2, when Tobey Maguire was still our friendly neighbourhood web-slinger? Doctor Octopus was the evil mastermind in this flick, and mastermind he truly was! What he managed to do in the movie has never been achieved by modern science: he sustained a nuclear fusion reaction. Nuclear fusion is the combination of two hydrogen atoms to produce helium. Fusion has more than all of the benefits of fission, with few of the drawbacks. It produces astronomical quantities of energy, approximately 3 to 4 times the amount that fission produces, and it’s safer. Some dramatic license and a little bit of exaggeration were used for the purpose of making a more exciting movie and to give Spidey more of a reason to take Doc Ock down, because in reality, if something goes wrong in a nuclear fusion reaction, it just doesn’t work, and nothing happens.

Fusion, when achieved, is a self-sustaining reaction, so like starting a car engine; it will just run itself once you turn the key and keep it fuelled, and it will just shut down when something goes arseways. All the metal objects in New York won’t suddenly come crashing in on the lab and crush Mary Jane. Fusion relies on hydrogen molecules which are in abundant supply in our atmosphere, as opposed to uranium which is in limited supply on Earth. It produces little to no radioactive waste, and the waste to energy output ratio is even more negligible. Fusion is also a process that occurs in nature, powering the core of stars from the inside out (hence one of Doc Ock’s lines from the movie, “the power of the sun in the palm of my hand”), whereas fission is a contrived human invention. Nuclear fusion has been achieved, but only in small instances, and we still lack the knowhow for sustaining the reaction.

This is the energy crisis, friends. The easiest way to sum it up is that you cannot have growing demands on limited resources without eventually running out of the resource. Relinquishing responsibility for life on Earth after you’re gone is a really simple way of avoiding the reality of it, but we don’t want our kids and grandkids to be deprived of the ability to binge watch Stranger Things, do we? That is a world I won’t be happy to leave in my wake.