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Germany, a European leader in renewable energy, is taking a gamble by closing the door on nuclear power, argues Jon Entine
One year after the Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy policy is moving in two opposite directions. While much of the world, led by Germany, is embracing caution and winding down nuclear energy ambitions, the US, Britain, France and Russia are poised to boost their nuclear estate.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently gave the green light to two Southern Company reactors outside Atlanta. It’s a clear restart for the sector – although it is not the renaissance nuclear supporters had hoped for, partly because of slowing energy demand and the shale gas revolution.
The UK, too, seems amenable to firing up nuclear capacity, although challenges abound. The Centre for Policy Studies claims that by 2030 one in three households faces fuel poverty and dependence on foreign gas, unless nuclear power plants are built. They project that new nuclear is expected to meet more than 40% of increased demand. A new poll from Ipsos Mori puts UK public backing of nuclear energy at its highest in a decade, at more than 50.
“The public sees Japan as a long way away and memories are short,” says poll director Robert Knight. “But concerns about the future security of energy supply closer to home are ongoing and persistent.” There are fears that without nuclear energy dependence on Russian and eastern European gas could increase.
Conversely, polls show German anti-nuclear sentiment rocketing. Why the difference? The diverging paths can be traced to the 1950s when post-war military establishments among the Allied powers drove nuclear energy policy, the legacy of the close ties between the military, private industry and governments in those victorious countries. In contrast, the collapse of the German and Japanese militaries provided a fortuitous opportunity for those countries to develop an energy policy that was not so closely tied to the military. Without massive government funding of nuclear projects, nuclear never gained as much traction in Germany
“What seemed then like a hindrance turned into an advantage,” says Andreas Kraemer, head of the Ecologic Institute in Berlin and Washington. “It allowed them to focus solely on energy policy, and not have it driven by Cold War fears.” With comparatively little reliance on nuclear energy compared with the US, France and the UK in the 1980s, Germany had committed to an energy future with a significant proportion of renewables, blurring lines that would emerge in other western countries between pro-nuclear conservatives and anti-nuclear liberals.
In spring 2011, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist, abruptly pulled the plug on half the country’s nuclear capacity, announcing that remaining reactors would be phased out by 2022. That policy poses pragmatic challenges, in part because of Germany’s commitment to European integration, which includes merged power lines. On most days, Germany avoids electrical blackouts by importing electricity from France and the Czech Republic, which generate much of their power with nuclear reactors. Both countries have rejected German requests for temporary shutdowns of ageing plants on its border.
Most experts are sceptical that renewables can fill the shortfall created by mothballing nuclear plants, which have become a key part of the integrated European energy mix. “It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s just go for renewables,’ and I’m quite sure we can some day do without nuclear, but this is too abrupt,” says Joachim Knebel, chief scientist at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
The Poles, with 85% of electricity coming from coal, see nuclear as their only hope to achieve clean energy independence. “The nuclear moratorium is bad news in terms of climate policy,” says Laszlo Varro from the International Energy Agency, which has been supportive of Germany’s green-leaning policy. “We’re not far from losing that battle already and losing nuclear makes that unnecessarily difficult.”
Germany is not without means to weather the transition. Last year it installed 7.5 gigawatts of solar power, making it the world’s largest market. It’s also developing the futuristic 500 megawatt Desertec wind and solar farm in Morocco – at a cost of €400bn. The German government is committed to increasing the contribution of renewable energy to domestic supply to 60% by 2050.
“Germany may well be regarded as the nation where the endgame of nuclear power began,” Kraemer says. “Our vision is of a smart power grid, fed by a mixture of large and small distributed renewable power plants, with electric cars providing grid-connected storage when parked, stabilising the power grid.”
There will be at least 10 years of energy shortfall resulting from the shut-down of reactors. For that, Germany plans to rely upon – gulp – coal and gas at home and nuclear from neighbouring countries. Electricity prices are set to rise €35-€40 per household a year for the foreseeable future. There is no free lunch when it comes to energy consumption.
Jon Entine, founder of the sustainability consultancy ESG MediaMetrics, is senior research fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communications at Stats/George Mason University.