In this column, on previous occasions, I raised the subject of how important it was for Ireland to be self sufficient as far as power and electricity was concerned. As a mere writer with no scientific qualifications, all I could offer was a strongly held opinion but, other than that, my arguments held no weight.

However, there is a growing number of ‘heavy hitters’ coming to the same conclusion. Fears about greenhouse-gas emissions from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and about security of supply in an insecure world are slowly propelling Ireland towards nuclear power.

Last week, two powerful and influential voices came out strongly in favour of nuclear power for this country, Senator Feargal Quinn and William Reville who is Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Public Awareness of Science Officer at UCC. Both men made their case in separate articles on separate days in ‘The Irish Times’.

Senator Quinn began by pointing out that, at present, this country is unable to even consider nuclear power plants because of official State opposition to it. We have even written into law, as part of the Electricity Regulation Act of 1999, that Ireland cannot build nuclear power stations. He went on to say that precluding even the consideration of nuclear power was storing up problems.

“The money we spend on four years’ worth of carbon emissions credits is just shy of the €1 billion it would take for Ireland to build a medium-sized nuclear power station. The cost of decommissioning a nuclear plant might add another €250 million or so to this figure but, even still, this looks like a calculation that is worth examining in more detail, In the western world, nuclear power has proven to be a safe, cheap and clean source of energy, using a fuel that is abundantly available”, said the highly respected and successful businessman.

“If we are confronted by another price spike in oil or wholesale gas, Ireland will have no easy alternative. We cannot suddenly turn to nuclear then because the lead-time on any new construction is 10 years. This economic recession may take a year or two to ride out but, when we do recover, it would be terrible to be then hit by a painful energy squeeze that could take even longer to ride out because we failed to prepare for it. Can we afford to persist in imposing a policy gagging order on nuclear power? It is a time for questions”, he concluded.

Coming from an academic and scientific background, Professor Reville’s argument carries a lot of weight. One of the problems he highlights is that the expertise and capacity to build nuclear power plants is very limited and is now confronting a big increase in demand. The time gap between placing an order and commissioning a nuclear power plant is growing rapidly. If we don’t order soon we will have to wait an inordinately long time before such a plant comes on line in Ireland.

Continued Professor Reveille in his ‘Irish Times’ article: “The nuclear industry went into a tailspin after the Three Mile Island accident in 1977 and crash-landed in 1986 with the massive explosion at Chernobyl. Demand for new plants has been minimal for the past 25 years and the specialised capacity to build these plants has declined to a low level. The industry is now struggling desperately to cope with increased demand as more countries choose nuclear power as a vital component of their energy mix. Nuclear power plant suppliers have full order books and new customers must join a lengthening queue.

“The heart of the nuclear power plant is the containment vessel and, obviously, this vessel must be built to the highest standards to minimise the risk of a radiation leak. The best way to fabricate this vessel is to produce it in a single piece and the only plant in the world capable of doing this is Japan Steel Works in Hokkaido.

“Japan Steel Works can only produce four containment vessels per year. This is not enough to meet the rate of incoming orders and even when the plant doubles capacity in two years, it will still fall short. Consequently, power utilities that don’t need the equipment for years are now placing $100 million (€78 million) down-payments to book their place in the queue. Other manufacturers are working to break Japan Steel’s stranglehold on the market but it could take five or more years to catch up.

“If Ireland had ordered a nuclear power plant in 1999 it would be working today (five years of planning and five years of construction), producing clean and relatively cheap electricity. If we decide on nuclear power today, we might still make this 10-year target. If we decide in two years’ time, the nuclear power plant will probably take 15 years to deliver. Every week we delay our decision puts months on the delivery date”, said Professor Reveille.

“A case can now be made that, in the short term, only nuclear energy can safeguard the economy, our jobs, the planet and our energy supply. We should therefore carefully consider this case”, he argued.

The truth about bearded men?

 Regular readers of this column know that I have always been a great admirer of the late John B Keane.  In the 1060s, he wrote a series of articles for The Limerick Leader newspaper and they are being repeated at present. Last week’s offering is another classic.

In a column that was first published in 1964, John B tackled the subject of men’s beards and, as usual, his words could have been written yesterday. While conceding that to grow a beard or not was an individual’s own business, the great writer admits that he had been greatly put off by the sight of black-bearded step-dancers yodeling like tomcats at impromptu concerts.  Beards were also, said John B, the last refuge of disillusioned artists and would-be novelists.

He was of the opinion that beards looked out of place on anybody under the age of forty and he blamed banjo-players and art critics for making them popular with the younger generation.  However, he would make one exception in that he believed all bank managers should be compelled to wear beards as it would help members of the public recognize them from afar and thus be able to give them a wide berth.

John B also sounded a word of warning to the many young women who liked to be seen out and about with trendy, bearded men.  If they looked at the photographs in the newspapers, he advised, they would see that men with beards rarely, if ever, got married.

Finally, he warned would-be beard wearers that there was nothing as revolting as a disorderly beard and that to be competent at trimming a beard a person would need the qualifications of a landscape gardener and the cold courage of a surgeon.  He was spot on.  As for myself, I’d consider shaving the beard off only for the fact that I wouldn’t like to frighten my colleagues and I would probably have trouble getting served in pubs!

The old gunfighter and his heir apparent

Sitting in a saloon in Dodge City one Saturday night, an up and coming gunfighter recognized an elderly man standing at the bar who, in his day, had

been acknowledged by all as being the fastest gun in the West. The young cowboy sidled up to the old-timer, bought him a drink and told him of his great ambition to be the fastest gunslinger ever. “Do you think you could give me some tips”, he asked.

The old man looked his young companion up and down and said: “Well, for one thing, you’re wearing your gun too high. Tie the holster a little lower down on your leg.” “Will that make me a better gunfighter”, asked the young man. “Sure will”, replied the old-timer.

The young man did as he was told and, then, anxious to try out his new holster position, he stood up, whipped out his Colt 45 and shot the bow-tie off the saloon piano player who jumped out of his seat with the shock.

“That’s terrific”, announced the young hot-shot. “Got any more tips for me”, he asked. “Yep”, said the old man. “Cut a notch out of your holster where the hammer hits it and that’ll give you a smoother draw.” “Wow, will that make me a better gunfighter”, asked the wide-eyed younger man. “You betcha it will”, said the old-timer.  The young man took out his knife, cut the notch, stood up, drew his gun in a blur and then shot a cufflink off the piano player who jumped in fright for a second time.

“Lordy, Lordy”, exclaimed the young cowboy, “I’m really learning something here. Got any more tips?” With a weary look on his face, the old man pointed to a large can in a corner of the saloon. “See that axle grease in the can over there? You should smear your weapon with it, the gun, the handle and especially the barrel.”

“Really, how will all that grease make me a better gunfighter”, asked the mystified young man. “It won’t”, said the old man with a grin, “but when Wyatt Earp gets done playing the piano, he’s gonna shove your gun up where the sun don’t shine and it won’t hurt as much.”