Should Ireland turn to small nuclear reactors for its climate goals?

10 Jun 2024

Image: © ververidis/

A new IAE report suggests that small modular nuclear reactors could support Ireland’s goals to be net neutral by 2050, but there is opposition to this type of energy.

It is an unfortunate truth that many countries – including Ireland – are struggling to hit their goals when it comes to renewable energy and tackling the climate crisis.

Multiple reports from Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency suggest that the country will not be able to meet its emission reduction targets for 2030 – even if all of its planned climate policies and measures are adopted.

This makes Ireland’s more ambitious goal – to be net zero in terms of emissions by 2050 – seem even less likely to be achieved. Various strategies are in place to help Ireland reach this goal, such as more wind, solar and hydrogen power.

But one energy source that Ireland has largely steered clear of is nuclear energy, for various reasons such as negative public perception. But one reason has been scale – the size of a regular nuclear power plant would be a massive focus point on Ireland’s grid, which presents various risks and grid problems.

But a new report from the Irish Academy of Engineering (IAE) suggests that small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) should be considered to support Ireland’s net neutral goals.

A way to decarbonise the grid?

The report says the vast amount of renewable energy Ireland will require to be net neutral will require a secure backup for when certain forms of renewable energy are not viable, such as periods of less sunlight for solar or less wind.

The fluctuations of energy production is a key issue for renewables. In order to keep a steady power flow, grid operators currently have to turn to other sources such as fossil fuels when demand exceeds the supply generated by renewables.

The IAE report suggests that SMRs could offer an alternative method to provide reliable backup power to handle the fluctuations presented by renewable energy sources.

“Ireland does not have significant stores of energy to provide security of supply,” the report said. “The gradual replacement of fossil fuels in Ireland’s energy mix by renewables will increase the energy security challenge because of the new exposure the country will face from weather-related energy shortages.”

The report also noted that other countries – including ones that Ireland’s grid is connected to such as the UK and France – are increasing their reliance on nuclear energy.

“At COP28, also, 25 countries – including the UK and France – launched a declaration to triple aggregate nuclear generation capacity by 2050,” the report said. “In circumstances where the two countries with which Ireland is planning to significantly increase grid connectivity are increasing their reliance on nuclear power, this option should also be considered in Ireland.”

The report recommends that Ireland engage with SMR manufacturers to evaluate the potential of including them in Ireland’s future energy plans. The report also suggests that Ireland develop the resources to assess the environmental impact of proposed SMR developments and be able to properly license and regulate them.

“A passive acceptance that the country might need SMRs is not sufficient, and an active response is required to ensure that, if SMRs prove to be economic, safe and reliable by the 2030s, Ireland is prepared to consider changes to national policies and legislation to permit their deployment,” the report said.

Nuclear concerns

But the potential for SMRs to bring nuclear energy to a more manageable scale is not the only issue. The report notes that public perception around nuclear energy is also a challenge.

Experts have also raised issues with nuclear power, however. In 2022,  the EU faced backlash for its decision to label gas and nuclear power as sustainable energy sources. While nuclear energy doesn’t emit carbon dioxide emissions, it still presents environmental impacts such as long-lasting radioactive waste.

A report from Greenpeace in 2022 listed various issues with nuclear power, including high costs, a slow road to creating large amounts of power and the fact that these power plants present targets for terrorism or cyberattacks.

This report also took issue with experimental concepts such as nuclear fusion, due to concerns there is too much cost and uncertainty around future nuclear technology for it to properly tackle the climate crisis and that the funding “would be better invested elsewhere”.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic