Governments impatient to switch off nuclear power face a battery of challenges
In a decade of growing climate-change awareness, low-carbon nuclear energy had gradually emerged as a desirable source of power. In times of spiking oil prices and troubled geopolitics, its low cost, safer supply had also seduced leaders from both developed and emerging markets. It was to be the golden age of nuclear energy; the main actors of the field seemed promised to a bright future.
Last March this future suddenly darkened. The Fukushima crisis, broadcasting Japan’s nightmare all over the planet, revealed that even in the developed world nuclear power could bear a far higher cost than traditional fuels - that of a large-scale, irreversible environmental disaster. The tide turned against nuclear energy with a vengeance: vocal activists called for an end to the last incarnation of human’s folly; citizens in Western nations called for a referendum on the use of nuclear power; governments pledged to drastically revise their energy policy. A good thing?
The most atom-dependent nations, like France, briskly announced decisions to tighten safety procedures and carry out a wave of extensive inspections. Others took more drastic steps: Italy, following a lost referendum, decided not to restart its nuclear program; China adopted a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants. A last category decided to get rid of nuclear energy altogether. Naoto Kan, Japan’s prime minister, was among them, vowing a gradual phasing out of nuclear. But the boldest move came from Europe’s biggest economy: Germany has decided to pull the plug on its remaining 17 nuclear plants by 2022. Such a policy shift is unprecedented, and may inspire other countries.
In the meantime, though, they’re mostly watching. Germany’s nuclear ban, officially approved by its lawmakers last Thursday, is a risky one: the country will have to replace one-quarter of its supply with new energy sources. Such a conversion will face unique challenges.
The first obstacle will be technological. Japan’s disaster has not buried Germany’s willingness to fight against carbon emissions, so a good part of the replacement will have to come from renewables: Angela Merkel says their share will have to double to 35%. Yet in many regards such ambitions sound heroic. Germany’s two current offshore windparks, when fully completed, will produce 92MW - dwarfed by UK’s wind power capacity of 1,300MW, and only an infinitesimal part of Germany’s needs of 10,000MW by 2022. Assuming enough plants can be built on time, will then arise the problem of developing a grid capable of transporting the electricity from where it is produced (mainly Northern and Eastern coastal regions) to where it is mostly needed (the rich and industrial West). Recent progress is not encouraging: only 90KM out of the necessary 4,500KM high-voltage lines have been laid over the past decade. Finally will surface the problem of storage. To avoid plugging potential energy gaps with imports from neighbours (such as nuclear France), Germany will have to develop a capacity to store energy for weeks, if not months. Current hydro-power plants’ capacity barely goes over a few hours. Even if all this hurdles can be addressed, the efficiency of its network may prove disappointing - Germany’s climate is not as renewables-friendly as the UK’s (for wind), the Netherlands (for tide), or Spain (for sun) - which means green power stations will have to be seconded by plants that can deliver a constant baseload: oil, gas, or coal ones.
Germany has no shortage of bright engineers - so solutions could eventually be found to these hurdles. Yet to transform drawings on paper into functioning mills, panels and turbines, another scarce resource will be sorely needed: money. Financing these projects will indeed need participation from a bewildering number of actors: the three main power companies say they can manage around 10 of the 25 wind parks needed, leaving around 15 to be built by municipal utilities or other investors; the size of the investment, maybe around €1bn, will involve 15 to 20 banks; KfW, the German development bank, and the European Investment Bank, will also provide funds. Ensuring this complex financing plan comes together will surely cause a few headaches in Berlin.
But the stiffest resistance may come from the first backers of the country’s audacious bet: the German public. Germans like the idea of getting rid of nuclear energy, but are reluctant to see turbines in their garden, and windmills blighting their coasts. Plus they are likely to bear part of the direct cost, as municipalities dig into their pockets to co-finance the plants - so residents may find there more reasons to protest. Petitions already show discontent in regions chosen for new facilities, and locals resort to all sorts of legal means and lobbying actions to hamper their construction. Again, German politicians will have to work extra hours if they are to better educate their voters.
The bottom line is that Germany may well fall behind its own schedule. In the interim, it will have to increase its production coming from fossile fuels, by building more plants; it will even have to subsidize them, as the legal and fiscal priority granted to green energy means that some of these new plants will not be economically viable. All in all, more taxpayer’s money will be sponsoring more carbon emissions. Is that really what the Greens wanted?
Such an apparent contradiction exposes the current shortcomings of anti-nuclear environmentalists. Their obsession on the lower probability risks of nuclear power implicitly makes the existential threat of global warming a more diffuse, less urgent one - not what environmentalists traditionally want the public to believe. This is why the green movement as a whole is actually much more divided on the issue than the loudest voices seem to indicate, and why some have come to restore nuclear energy as an ally towards a greener future. In the short-to medium term, they say, nuclear power stations will remain a cheap way to cut down on carbon emissions.
They also draw support from a recent UN report stating that the world will have to find $12,000bn - close to 85% of US government debt - over the next two decades to develop green energy and keep the lid on greenhouse gas emissions. This is a hefty energy bill, in a context where even the wealthiest nations are reluctant to honour their debts. Governments should bear in mind that nuclear energy can help us soften the installments - at least until the green shoots of alternative energy grow strong enough.