22. 08. 2011

Germany Gets It Wrong On Nuclear

E.ON has just announced that it will be shedding up to 11,000 jobs in Germany as a direct consequence of the German Government’s decision – post-Fukushima – to close down all its nuclear reactors by 2022 – much earlier than had originally been planned.

You might think that this is something I would be celebrating – another nail in the nuclear industry’s coffin.  Actually, it isn’t.  Indeed, like many anti-nuclear campaigners, I happen to think that Angela Merkel’s decision is just plain bonkers.  Not to keep your existing reactors operating for as long as possible – assuming that all the usual safety criteria are being met – is bad economics, bad for society, and even worse for the environment.

Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors generate nearly a quarter of the country’s electricity.  After decades of controversy surrounding nuclear power in Germany, a “final” decision was taken by the coalition government in September last year not to build any more nuclear reactors, but to extend the life of the existing reactors until 2036.

There was widespread agreement that this was the right thing to do in order to maximise the return on the investments that had already been made, especially given Germany’s impressive record on health and safety in managing its nuclear programme.  Six of the safest and most efficient reactors anywhere in the world are in Germany.

Then came Fukushima, followed immediately by some very bad regional elections for Angela Merkel, with the Green Party vigorously pressing its case for an accelerated closure programme – despite the fact that what happened in Fukushima has very limited bearing on Germany’s own nuclear programme.  Angela Merkel panicked, and agreed to bring forward the closure programme – to 2022.

So that 25% of electricity that would have come from nuclear power up until 2036 will now have to be found elsewhere.  To her credit, Mrs Merkel has indicated that the top priority will be to push even harder on energy efficiency, despite already having one of the most ambitious energy efficiency programmes anywhere in the world.  The next priority will be to double output from renewable energy (currently providing 17% of Germany’s electricity), which will be a massive – and very costly – challenge.

But those two things won’t bridge the gap on their own.   It seems inevitable that more of Germany’s coal will now be burned to make up the shortfall, and some experts have estimated that it will need up to 20 Gigawatts to prevent  serious energy shortages between 2022 and 2036.  Some will be built with Carbon Capture and Storage, but the Greens don’t seem to like this any more than they like nuclear.

This represents a pretty serious blow to Germany’s targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases – it could be as bad as an additional 300 million tonnes of CO2 emitted during that time.

For E.ON (and for its biggest competitor in Germany, RWE), it’s all bad news.  Both companies have had to make major write-downs relating to plant closures, have cut dividends, and have announced significant profit warnings for the next 3 years.  Their nuclear businesses are in a “wind-down” mode – which means that the likelihood of either of these companies being able to invest in a new nuclear programme here in the UK is vanishingly small.  That is one small benefit arising from Angela Merkel’s decision.

Without the two big German companies capable of joining the party, that just leaves EDF to deliver Chris Huhne’s crazy “nuclear renaissance” here in the UK.  But that’s another story altogether.

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01. 10. 2011
John Gale

I really don’t understand Jonathon's stance.
For 40 years he has been attempting to persuade the ‘powers that be’ to ‘mend their wicked ways’ and stop damaging the natural environment.
When one of these powers decides to forgo their most ecologically and socially damaging means of supplying the energy required by their environmentally degrading way of life – Jonathan states they’re ‘plain bonkers’.
Surely a more rational reaction would be to applaud the decision and highlight the problems whilst giving constructive advice – such as, possibly –
Since this massive cut in the potential energy supply will result in a shortfall too big for ‘renewables’ and ‘increased energy efficiency’ to fill, an actual energy-use-reduction programme will also be required. This latter implies a serious change-in-lifestyle. If the German government are taking this issue seriously, then they should be undertaking a massive public education programme.

11. 09. 2011
Wim Combrink

You seem to skip very lightly the risk of a , Fukushima alike accident in an older European power plant. If you are convinced it is quite an acceptable risk that an emergency-shut-down might fail and result in a meltdown scenario, your argument seems quite correct, but a serious accident in Europe might be more damaging than Fukushima. Before Fukushima it had entered my mind that protracting the use of older nuclear plants might be an advantageous way of diminishing CO2-output, but a a certain, however acceptable risk. The accident makes clear that it is not an imaginary danger.
I can't help noticing that your position is rather close to Monbiot's in this point.

06. 09. 2011

Until the green movement grows up about nuclear and realises that there is no alternative they are heading for a place in history as the people who did there bit to bring on climate change.

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