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Balancing energy shortages and global warming

The first wave of shock and news-making about the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, of March, 2011, has waned somewhat, but the effects will live on in the human psyche for a very long time.

The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi has prompted many governments to begin reassessing their own nuclear power plants in hopes of ensuring that no accident or terrorist attack of real magnitude would occur in their territories. Germany is now a particularly important case.

Although much of the early nuclear science was done in Germany, the modern German is very much against nuclear energy, and many violent demonstrations have supported its high political sensitivity. Yet, Germany has 17 operating nuclear reactors generating a net 22,237MWe (mega watt electrical) of nuclear electricity, some 23 per cent of their total electricity, and so great is the projected demand for electricity that, in addition, 19 coal plants are to come on line within a few years, and this is despite promises to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent compared to 1990 levels. Some of this reduction is to be met by a doubling of the output of renewables by 2020, to reach as much as 35 per cent of the electricity generation.

Effect of Fukushima Accident

Shortly after the Fukushima accident, and following an upsurge in public fears, German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched two commissions to make recommendations on the future of the nuclear industry. Some 100 experts took part in the safety review to test (to determine) how well equipped the plants were to cope with natural disasters or terrorist attacks. It found that none of the operating reactors was proof against crashes by heavy planes, and seven were not adequately equipped to handle even the crash of a light plane. The dangers from accidents or terrorist attacks seem clear.

As a result, Germany has announced that it plans to shut down all its nuclear reactors over the next 11 years, the same end date proposed by previous governments. The outputs would be replaced with renewable energy – a massive task for a country which has the world’s fourth-largest economy to replace that much energy. That decision makes Germany the biggest industrial power to give up nuclear energy. The reaction in Germany, as expressed by Chancellor Merkel, who was previously a supporter of nuclear energy, is of worldwide interest. They have determined that all nuclear plants will be phased out by 2022, the same end date planned by previous governments, in favour of coal and renewables.

Wind and solar are the preferred alternatives for nuclear. There is no doubt about the size of the resource, but it is still not clear if the technologies are fully ready. The idea is that wind farms on the North Sea coast could be greatly expanded, but because of the industrial geography, with much of the heavy usage in the south for the big energy users like the cities of Munich and Stuttgart and manufacturers like Volkswagen, a new and improved transmission system would be inescapable. Based on previous studies, this probably mostly means a smart grid of very high DC voltage atop very high pylons already known as ‘Energie Autobahn’, which would run right through the heart of Germany. Concerned residents fear new pylons will spoil their countryside. Emotions now run deep, not only against nuclear power, but also against coal and disfiguring central Germany with pylons carrying electricity from wind farms.

So, there is opposition to the energy highway. Some activists do not want nuclear power, but neither do they want a landscape disfigured by what they call ‘mega masts’.

The nuclear shutdown in Germany will cost billions of euros. Germany’s nuclear industry has argued that an early shutdown would be hugely damaging to the country’s industrial base. The power companies have warned of higher prices because of the nuclear shutdown and reminded that, in the past, Germany has imported electricity to meet peaks in demand, but Chancellor Merkel has said the decision to close nuclear reactors should not lead to importing nuclear power. She wants to prove that it is possible for a major industrialised economy to achieve economic growth, create jobs and economic prosperity, at the same time as moving the country to renewable-energy sources. The government points out that already the renewable-energy industry employs around 370,000 people. There is good news for manufacturers of the renewable-energy infrastructure.

High costs

Increased taxes may be necessary; already there is a tax on spent fuel rods, which would remain and more could be added. On a different note, according to Princeton’s Professor von Hippel, the United States spends two per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on electricity, and could probably afford using renewables instead of nuclear power at three per cent of GDP. The truth is that no one really knows, but these are not small sums, and it is unclear whether taxpayers would be willing to pay for large subsidies for solar and wind.

While nuclear development in some countries may be delayed or cancelled, because of the Japanese accident, many countries, especially China and India, seem to have no real option but to continue with their nuclear programmes. Some countries need nuclear energy to meet their electricity needs and to reduce their large emissions of pollutants. Fortunately, there is a whole category of reactors in development, with inherently safe features that use the laws of physics to prevent meltdown.

Nevertheless, in the long term, if it works, Germany is going to be way ahead of its competitors, and then would stand to make a great deal of money. It is an interesting situation, but there is no obvious general position. Each country, including small ones like ours, is faced with the twin perils of energy shortages and global warming in the near future, and must balance its particular energy needs with the domestic availability of natural resources, its science and technology, consideration for greenhouse gas emissions, and cost-effectiveness, not to mention safety and foreign-policy concerns. The German results will be very closely watched.

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