Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Rejecting Germany’s Dark Nuclear Future

Europe is getting itself into a real tizzy over nuclear energy, because the strongest country in the European Union, Germany, is dead set against it and the other 27 members of the union – well, not so much.

Using taxpayers' money to fund nuclear power is "absolutely out of the question", German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Thursday, in an apparent swipe at British plans to finance new atomic generation.

The French company EDF is building the new reactor at Britain’s Hinkley Point site. The EU voted state aid for the project last year and the Germans are now threatening a law suit to stop it. I’m not entirely sure who they’re suing or why exactly – and, frankly, I’m not interested enough to find out.

But what is interesting – and more relevant to us over here – is the behavior of other EU countries in light of this kerfluffle..

Representing member states that support nuclear power, Romania's Energy Minister Andrei Gerea has written to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic calling for "a supportive EU framework for safe and sustainable new nuclear".

He also urges the Commission to publish promptly its plans for deeper reform of the European Union's Emissions Trading System once efforts under way to set up a reserve for surplus carbon permits have been agreed.

The dots do not fully connect here, but it sounds as though Gerea believes that climate change goals will not be met without nuclear energy – nor do his allies.

In the letter seen by Reuters, Gerea says he also represents the views of Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

It’s the close if vague linkage of nuclear energy and carbon permits that makes this thought viable – and it sounds right on its face – but there is also national sovereignty. Countries do not want to be told what to do about energy policy. If they want nuclear energy, they’ll have it, German bluster or no.

Still, Reuters gets close to, but not all the way to, the relevant point (for me, anyway). This article by David Hess at The Energy Collective gets there and then some:

Make no mistake. Closing well-performing nuclear plants before it is technically necessary costs society dearly. Anyone who has ever bought an expensive appliance will understand that you aim to squeeze every bit of useful work out of it before letting it go. You maximize the value of your investment. The economics of nuclear generation is dominated by construction and financing, with fuel and operating costs typically lower than fossil. As with renewables such as wind and solar, once you have gotten through the painful period of paying back the initial capital outlay you should have entered a golden period of low-cost power production.

That’s exactly the issue that binds the U.S. and Europe on this issue, even if you strip climate change from the argument. When you build a nuclear power plant, you’ve got effective energy production for 40 or 60 or even more years. It doesn’t raise electricity bills, it doesn’t present problems of intermittency and, let’s throw it back in, it doesn’t pollute. It’s not quite fair to say that it played a big hand in Germany and Japan’s industrial capacity – too many factors to consider, really, to foreground just this one - but as the two countries have scaled back on nuclear, so has their industrial output decreased. Japan has been quite explicit that nuclear energy made a difference.

Hess’ article is well worth attending to, even if its focus is Europe. Many countries are resisting any effort to stop nuclear energy because they know its benefits and refuse to give them up (and, as a bonus, likely want to keep Germany out of their business). This reflects the struggle in the U.S to recognize the atom’s value as a climate change agent that just happens to be an energy powerhouse – we’ve written about efforts in Washington state, Illinois and Virginia to ensure the future of nuclear energy in those places.

Some 64 gigatons of CO2 has been prevented from entering the Earth’s atmosphere due to influence of nuclear power over its history, not to mention some 1.84 million people have lived longer lives.

I’ve tried to brush climate change away from the economic argument in this post, but it stubbornly refuses to go away. Hess shows why – 1.84 million people is why.

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