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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 07:16 GMT
Atom issue splits NI politicians
By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI Environment Correspondent

Margaret Ritchie
Margaret Ritchie opposes nuclear power
Ministers on both sides of the border may want Ireland to be made a nuclear-free zone, but is it already too late to keep the island untouched by atomic technology?

The light in her office casts a long shadow across Margaret Ritchie's desk.

It's here the social development minister has been working on her campaign to keep Ireland free of nuclear power.

But the light by which the minister works already at times relies on nuclear power - the very technology which Ms Ritchie has vowed to keep out of Ireland.

It was at the recent North-South meeting in Bangor where the SDLP's Ms Ritchie and John Gormley, the Green Party leader and Irish environment minister, called on all political parties to sign up to a nuclear-free zone for everyone on the island.

But already homes and businesses across the island rely to some extent on electricity generated in nuclear power stations.

Many politicians along Ireland's eastern seaboard may express concern about the discharges from nuclear sites like Sellafield, but the reality is that the electricity produced by the nuclear industry is now an integral part of the power which Britain cables across the ocean floor to Ireland.

The nuclear electricity is pooled along with power from coal and gas powered stations as well as hydroelectric schemes.

That electricity makes its way to these shores through the Moyle interconnector.

NIE says it's impossible to tell how much of the electricity originates from nuclear power stations.

Chapelcross, Dumfries May 2007
Power from nuclear plants comes across the Irish Sea

But to trade electricity with Britain means an implicit reliance on nuclear power.

Whatever the usage of electricity derived from nuclear power stations, Ms Ritchie and John Gormley are determined that there will be none generated on this side of the Irish sea.

"At present in Northern Ireland we don't have a stated energy policy with regard to nuclear power. We are therefore calling on all parties to sign up to a nuclear free zone for everyone on this island," said Ms Ritchie.

Endorsing her comments, Mr Gormley said he stood alongside her in saying that nuclear power was not the way forward for the island.

But the call for a cross-border coalition against nuclear power has already registered a dangerously high reading with other parties.

Sammy Wilson of the DUP has attacked what he calls "scaremongering" about nuclear power.

We live with the constant threat of harm from Sellafield
Margaret Ritchie

"There have been no deaths as a direct result of nuclear accidents for over 20 years, and there is no solid evidence to suggest that people who live near to a nuclear power plant are at an increased risk," said Mr Wilson.

But DUP arguments that nuclear power is an important tool in reducing Co2 emissions cuts little ice with Brian Wilson of the Green Party.

The Greens' only MLA at Stormont is worried that a nuclear power station might malfunction and leave consumers without electricity.

"We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket," he said.

Brian Wilson's vision is for lots of small power producers, harnessing the power of the wind, the waves and biofuel.

But Sammy Wilson predicts an increase in usage of nuclear power would reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of fuel, many of which currently come from volatile and unstable parts of the world.

"Renewables are not the answer; wind and waves are intermittent and many of them need fossil fuel back up. They cannot be relied upon to provide for our energy needs," he said.

Back in her office Margaret Ritchie may be staring up at the light bulb and worrying about the risks associated with nuclear power.

The shift back towards a nuclear power energy policy in Britain is known to concern her.

"We live with the constant threat of harm from Sellafield if a disaster ever happened there, and that is on top of constant radiation pollution in the Irish Sea," she said.

And so the great nuclear debate begins in Ireland. The early signs are that like protons and electrons, unionists and nationalists may be electrically charged in completely opposite ways.

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