Sunday, July 17, 2011

Was Germany’s Nuclear Power Decision Hasty?

Fukushima certainly raised alarm bells in Germany, so much so that they have declared to phase out nuclear power altogether by 2022. Given that in the West power consumption continues to rise and, given also the concern about CO2 emissions one is compelled to ask, did the Germans think this through?

They have done well to reduce emissions since Kyoto, but what will replace energy production after 2022? As Dina Esfandiary explains below, ending nuclear power so soon is bad news for the environment.
Germany Says Goodbye Nuclear

Dina Esfandiary is a Research Analyst and Project Coordinator within the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has caused many governments to re-examine their own nuclear power programmes - not simply to ensure their plants’ safety, but to ask whether nuclear power in general is a safe source of energy. Two European countries have declared that they now plan to phase out their nuclear plants altogether: Germany by 2022 and Switzerland by 2034. Fukushima was a terrible event, but eliminating nuclear power is a knee-jerk response – and the wrong one.

Our energy consumption is on the increase, and the power has to come from somewhere. In Germany and Switzerland, nuclear power accounts for 33% and 40% of supply respectively. It is worth asking ourselves: if we stop using nuclear power, where will we get it from?

Renewable energy sources will not fill the gap any time soon. Yes, the accompanying initiative for the development of other renewable sources of energy is a good one, but installing the infrastructure for it will take time and money. At the moment, despite investments in wind power, turbines only produce 3% of Germany’s energy needs. A spokesperson for Lenz Energy in Berlin said: “If the (German) nuclear plants are missing, solar power can compensate for some of it but the question is can renewables really cope with all scenarios?" Energy produced from existing renewable technologies is also difficult to store, and provides a less reliable flow of energy. This means that more energy needs to be generated to account for the potential spikes in demand from the same number of consumers.

So what will fill the gap? Coal and possibly gas. Germany, famous for its efforts in implementing the Kyoto Protocol and aiming to reduce emissions by 40% by 2020, will undo much of its commendable work when it abandons nuclear power. Although the natural gas market has developed recently, it is still expensive and more importantly, a fossil fuel, which will not help reduce emissions. According to the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, Nobuo Tanaka, gas is not a “panacea for climate change”. In the short term, Germany’s energy needs can only be met by a greater reliance on coal, which already accounts for about half of its energy supply. One industry professional explained that “In a year, in Germany we save 170 million tonnes of CO2 by using nuclear power plants. If we shut down the nuclear power plants, the only alternative is coal."

Germany will try to avoid an over-reliance on coal by importing its energy from abroad. In March 2011, electricity imports from its neighbours France and the Czech Republic doubled, and exports slowed considerably. According to the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, Germany now imports approximately 50 gigawatt hours (the capacity equivalent to one-and-a-half nuclear reactors) a day from both countries.

How do these countries produce their electricity? Both are nuclear-reliant: France produces about 75% of its energy by nuclear power, while the Czech Republic produces a little less than 40%. Should an accident occur in either of these countries, the effects of radiation would be unlikely to stop at their borders. Depending on the direction of the winds, both Germany and Switzerland could expect to be affected by radioactivity from such a disaster, as would the rest of Europe.

Fukushima was a terrible disaster, one that was caused by the force of nature disrupting power to the plant and impeding its cooling system. That is not likely in Europe where plants are built in areas that are much more tectonically stable. In the wake of Fukushima, ensuring a constant flow of power and cooling water to the power plants should be investigated. Nuclear accidents are terrible, because they are destructive, sudden, and scary. But rather than abruptly ending programmes that have been heavily invested in, governments should further secure them by updating plants and working with the IAEA to ensure that safety standards are implemented and respected. Bringing nuclear power to an end is bad for the environment, bad for energy security and bad economics.

The original version of this post was featured in french, in Le Temps.

The article above appeared at Pnyx ... a forum for comment on global security and politics. It aims to provide concise and productive insight, and focuses on a broad range of issues which reflect the research interests of the contributors.
What about Australia?

As a case in point, France with a population five times that of Australia emits less CO2 than us Australians. The reason is simple as it uses nuclear power to meet its electricity demands. Now given that 36% of Australia’s emissions are generated by producing electricity it might be time we at least begin talking; debating the nuclear option.

Click here and here and here for my previous posts about nuclear power.