Nuclear energy isn’t a trap for the unwary. When a country decides to invest in nuclear energy, it does so knowing the risks and benefits. If it invests heavily in nuclear energy – think France, Germany, Russia, China, The U.S. - it has done a good deal of study over many years to determine the value of the decision.
Public support for nuclear energy certainly took a significant hit after the accident at Japans’ Fukushima Daiichi plant, but even that has begun to moderate.
Public support for nuclear power appears to have bounced back in the UK after falling sharply in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, a survey showed today.
The Ipsos MORI poll of almost 1,000 adults across Britain revealed half of those questioned (50%) supported the building of new nuclear plants in the UK to replace the current generation of reactors which are being shut down.
That’s what makes Germany’s decision to close its nuclear energy facilities so fascinating. Of course, you’d expect nuclear energy advocates to consider it a bad move – we’ve had considerable fun with it on this blog – but with most other countries moving forward, after a pause, with their plans (From the above story: “The UK Government plans to build a series of new reactors on or next to existing nuclear sites to replace plants being phased out over the next few years, as part of plans to ensure secure electricity supplies and to help cut carbon emissions.”), what has become clearer is that Germany’s decision was quite precipitous, even radically so.
What made it also seem cynical was that it was overseen by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously recognized that exiting nuclear energy without a viable replacement plan in place was bad policy. In response to the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant but as likely motivated by a tough election, she pivoted by doubling down on a policy she considered bad.
But in doing so, did she make a trap of nuclear energy?
Before the decision to close the plants, Germany was already in a pickle due to its decision to move heavily into renewable energy so it could exit nuclear energy by 2025, as this Economist article from late 2010 describes:
Renewables in Germany are growing more quickly than in almost any other EU state, but that is only because consumers pay a large subsidy, some €10 billion ($12.8 billion) last year. Energy taxes, already high, may be about to rise. In August energy companies and their supporters took out full-page newspaper advertisements arguing against tax rises and for a dismantling of bureaucratic barriers to investment. To secure cheap, climate-friendly power, the signers argued, nuclear and coal would have to remain part of the mix.
Yet to withdraw on schedule from nuclear power, which produces more than a fifth of Germany’s electricity, would be risky. The CDU [Christian Democratic Party, Merkel’s party] is divided, but leans towards extending the deadline. Many in the party see the decision as a test for a chancellor who prefers messy compromises to clear leadership. “It would be fatal to give up” a source of energy that is cheap, domestic and emits little carbon, says Joachim Pfeiffer, a CDU member of the Bundestag.
Between late 2010 time and the Japan accident, the government decided to extend the life of the plants to provide more time to put renewables in place. So nuclear energy need not be a trap, even when you want to do something else. (The Greens in this article make a really funny argument, though – because nuclear energy runs full tilt all the time, it’s tough to ramp it down to accommodate the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy. It’s really flips relative strength and weakness on their heads.)
The response to Germany’s post-Fukushima decision has been – what you’d expect:
Utilities are less keen. They say high natural gas costs, still mostly tied to oil with its inbuilt geopolitical price premiums, and low power prices make gas plants an unprofitable business.
"The goals is very ambitious -- this will not be easy," said Juergen Grossmann, chief executive of Germany's No.2 utility RWE.
So there’s that.
One of the top priorities is the expansion of transport and distribution networks for power from renewables sources including wind and solar, Germany's new favored form of energy.
The task is being delayed by protests and overly long procedures to approve new grids and existing grid revamps, which in some cases take more than 10 years.
Siemens estimates that Germany's energy shift will cost up to 1.7 trillion euros ($2.17 trillion) by 2030, most of which will be borne by taxpayers and power consumers.
And – hey, ouch!
Some of this might have been inevitable – nuclear plants have exceptionally low running costs – but other aspects are a function of flipping the off switch too quickly. All other factors being equal, Germany would be foolish not to consider all options.
The German government's 180-degree turn in nuclear policy has helped breathe new life into Europe's energy industry -- though not always to Germany's benefit. The country has gone from being an energy exporter to an energy importer practically overnight, which brings along with it a number of negative consequences for its economy, consumers and security.
And that can cause a grim, tight smile. Why?
Germany's decision to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022 has rapidly transformed it from power exporter to importer. Despite Berlin's pledge to move away from nuclear, the country is now merely buying atomic energy from neighbors like the Czech Republic and France.
That may seem a case of reaping what you sow , but it also raises the specter of hypocrisy.
So has nuclear energy trapped Germany into a costly, self-defeating energy policy? Not a bit – Germany self-trapped, so to speak, letting panic, short-sightedness and cynicism trump sound policy making – whether that policy would or would not have included nuclear energy.
Speaking of other countries not following Germany’s course:
Ma Ying-jeou won 51.6 percent of the total votes to Tsai Ing-wen’s 45.63 percent, while voter turnout, at 74.38 percent, was less that the 76.33 turnout in the previous presidential election in 2008, though all the numbers won’t be finalized until a Central Election Commission meeting on Thursday.
Ma supports the expansion of nuclear energy in Taiwan. His opponent, Tsai Ing-wen, wanted to close all the plants. Nuclear energy was not a big issue in the election – economic ties to mainland China, which Ma initiated, was the determinative factor.
Still, no complaints here.
Our Japan updates continue every Monday over on the Safety First web site. The site has more too, including, most recently, a great interactive graphic showing how American nuclear facilities weathered various natural hullabaloos surrounding them this year. Great to share with friends. Well worth a visit for more than just the Japan updates.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel.