Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Running Out of Road in Belgium

TihangeGermany is a big country with a big problem when it  comes to closing its nuclear plants. Belgium is a smaller country with the same problem and somehow it’s still a pretty big one:

With just three years to go before Belgium is due to begin phasing out nuclear power, the country is still grappling with basic questions about its plans, including whether the 2015 deadline has to be adjusted to ensure electricity supplies remain reliable.

To be honest, if you want to close nuclear plants, you have to prepare for the loss of a lot of electricity and the very real possibility that the price to customers will go up, in some cases considerably. Belgium hasn’t prepared for any of this.

Melchior Wathelet, the country's new state secretary for energy, said in an interview that a study currently being prepared, for presentation by July, will assess whether there is "an alternative that would guarantee the security of supply at an acceptable price and respecting the environment."

If it were the U.S., one might poke up one’s hand and say, “Natural gas!” But that’s not a very good option for Belgium because it would likely get the gas from Russia – the whole reason, I’d guess, the phrase “security of supply” is in that statement.

Once you’ve eliminated natural gas, the answer to Mr. Wathelet’s conundrum is that Belgium will have to make an unattractive decision – accept higher electricity rates via imported sources – such as nuclear energy from France – or flip the switch on some of the shuttered coal plants.

But:

"I will say that I am getting out of [nuclear] only when I am sure I have an alternative ready," Mr. Wathelet said. Nuclear power accounts for roughly 55% of Belgium's electricity production.

Gulp! An alternative to 55 percent of your electricity production? And fast? Good luck, Mr. Wathelet.

We’ve said several times that nuclear energy is not a trap for the unwary – you don’t have to be wedded to it however much good it has done for your energy profile – but perhaps we should amend that. Nuclear energy is a trap for bad policy makers because the atom produces a lot of emission-free electricity for not very much money. (New facilities are relatively expensive to build but exceedingly inexpensive to run. As soon as you’ve paid off your fixed costs, gravy.) Countries reap the benefits with happier electricity customers – who are not paying as much as their non-nuclear neighbors and are doing their bit to combat climate change.

I genuinely don’t get why the Germans and Belgians would make  decisions that are likely to cause at least some social harm. I understand the German anxiety caused by Chernobyl colored its view of Fukushima, but I also know that that fear didn’t amount to anything. With Belgium, it was a bill blithely passed in 2003 to shut the plants after 40 years of operation – with the idea of what to replace them with kicked down the road like an old can.

Belgium is now out of road – and holding a can full of coal.

If the Germans and Belgians had behaved with any sense of responsibility, they might not have gotten into such an awful situation – and might still leave nuclear energy behind, though perhaps in a more orderly way and with further thought behind it.

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What a difference a little time and cooler heads can make:

After last year’s disaster at Fukushima, many forecast the death of the nuclear power industry as countries jumped out of this potent fuel for other alternatives. Some looked for fossil fuels to play a bigger role in electricity production, while others predicted greater dependence on clean tech products such as wind and solar instead. While both of these types have increased somewhat in importance, nuclear power doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, at least in some markets.

From Christine Whitman and Patrick Moore:

The United States has taken an important step toward efficiently meeting the country's rising electricity demand by ensuring a greater supply of clean, safe nuclear power.

With plans in place in Georgia for the construction of the next generation of nuclear energy facilities, this industry expansion will promote economic prosperity and continued development of a sustainable clean energy source. We need a cost-efficient, low-carbon solution to the nation's increasing electricity demand- projected to rise 24 percent by 2035. Expanding nuclear energy as part of the mix of electricity generation options is necessary to meeting our nation's growing power needs cleanly and cost-effectively.

From The Trenton (N.J.) Times:

How can we best provide energy for New Jersey’s economic expansion? The answer is nuclear power — and building a new plant to capitalize on nuclear power’s economic and environmental benefits. Such a plant can supply large amounts of affordable power from a small amount of fuel all day, every day, without polluting the air or loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

This one almost goes over the top – but in a good way.

A quick look at the mid-Atlantic region and around the country shows that the revival of nuclear power is picking up steam and public support.

Some of this is reaction to Southern Co. getting a license to build two new reactors at Plant Vogtle – but some of what I’ve seen has just seemed free-floating support for the atom. Appreciated.

The Tihange facility in Belgium.

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