Learning from Experience - Energy

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Nuclear power plant in Biblis
Picture: springfeld, flickr.com , Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0

March 28, 2011
Ralf Fücks

By Ralf Fücks

When 25 years ago for the first time a nuclear reactor blew up in Chernobyl, the end of this type of power production seemed to be near. In fact, the construction of nuclear power plants largely came to a standstill. Sweden and Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy. But over the years, the name Chernobyl lost its spell. In Germany, the new Conservative-Liberal coalition rolled back the nuclear consensus for which the Social-Democratic - Green coalition had fought, and there was talk of a global "renaissance of nuclear energy". That was yesterday. Today, a new nuclear tragedy is unfolding before our eyes, as the crew at the Fukushima nuclear power plant battles desperately to avert a really major catastrophe. The Tokyo metropolitan area, with its 35 million inhabitants, is less than 300 km away. 

Will "Fukushima" now become the new code for the end of the nuclear age? For Germany that will probably be true. Internationally, the answer remains open. But this time around, it will be even harder for utilities and governments to return to business as usual. That is true for at least the democratic part of the world, where the use of high risk technologies cannot simply be imposed from above. While Chernobyl could be dismissed as the failure of a bankrupt communist system, the current nuclear accident takes place in a highly industrialized civilization with a strong risk awareness culture. It was triggered by a natural disaster. At one single stroke, it revealed the vulnerability of a technically highly developed civilization. The natural disaster and industrial disaster merged. While it is possible to evacuate several hundred thousand people from the immediate vicinity of the damaged nuclear reactor, a megametropolis such as Tokyo can only watch helplessly as the accident develops, and where the wind will blow. The transportation of cargo, air traffic, the supply of electricity and water has been massively reduced, industrial production halts, the stock market slumps. An entire country is tumbling towards a state of emergency.

In the face of such events, does the chorus of demands raised in Germany for a rapid withdrawal from nuclear energy amount to no more than mass hysteria or naval gazing? Certainly, fear is a factor – but to dismiss it as irrational emotionalism would miss the point completely. This Angst in the face of a nuclear catastrophe has a rational core. What more proof is needed to justify mistrust in the safety of nuclear power plants? What was yesterday a negligible, theoretical risk has today become horrible reality: For if an event is improbable, it is only a question of time before it will in fact occur. The longer these plants – which would be ineligible for licensing today – stay online, the greater the danger of a catastrophic accident.

The logical consequence is that the protests in Germany are aimed primarily at the outdated power plants. The nuclear reactor of Fukushima, too, was originally designed to last 30 years. Without the lifespan extension the old plants would have been off the grid for a long time. We should not continue to play with fire. Even if the German government with its instant moratorium for the oldest nuclear power plants may only have a tactical election campaign maneuver in mind - a return to the status quo ante is no longer possible. It would also be unprofitable for the operators of the old plants to bring them up to the current state of security technology. The phase-out does not mean that the lights will go out in Germany. On the contrary, the accelerated phase-out of nuclear energy will prepare the ground for increased investment in renewable energies, which are already the technology of the future.

It is often suggested that the phase-out of nuclear energy is a special German approach, which no one wants to follow. But the alleged "renaissance of nuclear power" was already on shaky feet before the Fukushima accident. Actually, the number of nuclear power plants is decreasing steadily around the world. During the next 15-20 years, more old installations will go off the grid than new ones will start up. Today, no utility around the world can risk building a new nuclear power plant without government subsidies and guarantees. New installations are primarily built in locations where the government and utilities form an unholy alliance. Costs are exploding. The estimated construction cost for a new nuclear power plant in Olkiluoto, Finland, for instance, almost doubled from 3 billion EURO to around 5.4 billion EURO. In addition, there are the unresolved problems of the final storage, the enormous costs of decommissioning, and the high susceptibility of failure for this technology. Raising the safety standards in the wake of the Japanese series of accidents will  increase the cost of nuclear energy even further.

A more wide-spread use of nuclear energy also heightens the risk of nuclear proliferation. Civilian and military nuclear technologies are like Siamese twins. There is no reliable wall between them – just look at Iran's nuclear program. It is an illusion to believe that the proliferation of nuclear weapons can be prevented, when at the same time nuclear technology is exported all over the world. Also, climate change is not a good argument for nuclear power. Nuclear energy does not have the potential to make a decisive contribution to climate protection. Currently, worldwide 436 reactors contribute about six per cent to the primary consumption of energy. The number of reactors required to make a relevant contribution to CO2 reduction would be at least 1,000 to 1,500.  One does not have to be a coward to consider that a horror scenario.

Contrary to the mantra of the German government, nuclear energy is no good as a bridge into the solar age. Even today, under favorable weather conditions, and at low demand, wind energy covers the entire German demand for electricity. Because the output of the large nuclear and coal fired power plants cannot be restricted rapidly, the excess power has to be exported at below cost prices. This systemic conflict will become even stronger as more renewable energies are developed. The future energy supply will consist of a wide-ranging combination of wind power, hydro-electric power, solar energy, biomass, and decentralized gas power plants. In parallel, we need a revolution in efficiency  to dramatically reduce energy consumption. If Germany proceeds in this manner, the country can become the global center of excellence for the energy revolution.

Those who say that in view of the Japanese tragedy the issue of nuclear energy does not belong into the German election campaign are twisting the meaning of democratic elections. When, if not now, should the future energy policy of the country be decided?

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Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books.