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By Andrew Holland on Mar 23, 2012 with 11 responses

Why Germany is Saying Good-Bye to Nuclear Power

Nuclear Shut-Down Grounded In Recent German History

The German government surprised Europe by announcing the closure of its nuclear power program a year ago this week, immediately after the Fukushima disaster. Some have since reopened, but others never will. They all will be closed and permanently retired by 2022.

This seemed to many of us in the energy field like a rash decision, but it was not. In my conversations around Berlin this week, it has become clear that this was not a simple, snap decision in response to the Japanese tragedy. Anti-nuclear sentiment has a long history and broad support across society.

Rise of the Greens

That consensus against nuclear power has its roots in the Green Party. The Greens emerged from the rebellious 1968 generation. In the U.S. we think of a green party as solely an environmental movement; that’s a big part of the German green movement, but certainly not the only part. The early greens consciously rejected what they perceived as the ideals of both sides of the Iron Curtain that divided their country. They were both anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian.

Meanwhile, from the 1950s through the 1970s, nuclear power was being promoted on both sides of the Wall as the solution to all energy problems. The founders of the green movement dissented from both sides; nuclear was seen as militarist, because of its association with nuclear weapons; consumerist, because it promoted enhanced use of energy; and authoritarian because it promoted a centralized structure of power. When, after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it became clear that nuclear power was also dangerous, opposition was cemented.

Since the 1960s and ’70s, the Greens have matured as a political party and moderated some of their views in order to gain power. Today, they can be counted on for about 15-20% of the national vote,and they can win some local elections. But, their core belief against nuclear power has not moderated. On the contrary, they have largely convinced the rest of the country with their arguments. Even before Fukushima, nuclear power was opposed by more than 80% of the public.

Decision Was Really Made Prior to Fukushima

In the early ’00s, during the Schroeder administration — the first in which the Greens held power — an agreement was made with the utility companies that they would shut down all nuclear power plants by 2022. This was calculated as long enough to pay off all the investment, plus depreciation of the nuclear plants. But, when the conservative government under Merkel came to power, that agreement was suspended — an unpopular decision.

The events a year ago in Fukushima gave Merkel’s coalition government the opportunity it needed to save face while walking away from their decision. Although it may have seemed sudden that Germany was suspending its nuclear power, it should not have been. It is almost enough to say now that to be anti-nuclear is part of being German.

Conclusion: More Anti-Nuclear than Pro-Climate

That does not make it right, though. I am not convinced by their anti-nuclear arguments, but this story shows how decisions and feelings from 40 years ago rebound until today. At that time, their arguments may have made sense, but I believe that addressing the climate and health effects of coal and oil use should be a higher priority than shutting down a largely safe source of carbon-free energy.

When asked about it, the Greens I met with this week in Germany will say that it is not a contradiction to be both in favor of climate action and anti-nuclear. “We will do both” they say. They point out that even before Fukushima, more of their electricity came from renewables than from nuclear. But that is a cop-out and does not acknowledge that political choices are a matter of setting priorities. Their actions show that they are more anti-nuclear than pro-climate action, and that is unfortunate.

  1. By Gaudencio Labrador on March 23, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    I truly thank God that the Germans walk away or run away from Nuclear Power Plants and I further thank God for the Fukushima desaster – because it is run by irresponsible capitalists and authoritarian Goverment Officials at the expense of and brant up0n the community and against the human race. In sinful transgression, they knew very well about God’s gift availablity of the clean solar power and wind power since time of creation but due to greed, they suppressed these clean energies as well as the hydrogen fuel which provides thermonuclear energy.

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  2. By George B. on March 24, 2012 at 1:27 am

    Only an Idiot wlll expect Germany to give up Clean Green Nuke Energy.  People with any sense at all know that Nuke power is about the only thing that will power the economy. Nukes have excellent safety records all save of that pile of junk the Russians built…a nightmare of a design..

    The new designs are many many times safer than the Fuk Nuke, which performed well past it’s design limits..  

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    • By Andrew Holland on March 26, 2012 at 7:49 am

      George – thanks for your thoughts. Though I agree that it’s difficult to believe that they’re going to give away all this investment in nuclear, I can assure you that they will. Its going to happen – and I don’t think I’m an idiot!

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  3. By Russ Finley on March 25, 2012 at 4:38 pm

     

    I read this same article almost three weeks ago at Renewable Energy World, which was a repost from the site listed at the bottom of this article.

     

    Some have since reopened, but others never will. They all will be closed and permanently retired by 2022.

     

    I strongly suspect that won’t actually happen for economic reasons, but if they do go through with it, hey, it’s only money, and more GHG emissions. To do that, Germany has documented plans to import more electricity from the European grid and also to increase the use of fossil fuels domestically. Imported electricity will come from many sources. In a nutshell, they plan to suck energy from their neighbor’s base load sources to shore up their intermittent sources.

     

     

    it has become clear that this was not a simple, snap decision ….

     

     You don’t call this a snap decision?

     

     Instantaneously the Merkel coalition closed 7 nuclear power plants and had immediate plans for shutting down 2 more

     

     Just because a majority of the German people have been convinced that nuclear energy is dangerous does not mean they are acting wisely, or rationally. There was also “broad support across society” when Germany instigated the most brutal conflagration in all of modern history. Ironically, Germany was the main reason for the accelerated development of nuclear technology.

     

     When, after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it became clear that nuclear power was also dangerous, opposition was cemented.

     

    That’s irrational. Nuclear is less dangerous than any other energy source:

     

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

     

     We can thank the timely release of a movie called The China Syndrome for what the public knows about Three Mile Island. Chernobyl continued to produce electricity for 14 years after the accident, and created Europe’s largest wildlife preserve. Radiation has proven to be far less of a problem to wildlife than people are.

     

     Fears of safety, both rational and irrational have stemmed nuclear’s growth

     

     Nuclear growth has been slowed by a combination of factors. Irrational fear (like the fear of flying on airliners) created by anti-nuclear groups has had an impact, but by far the biggest competition has come from fossil fuels, which have far lower up-front costs, although much higher fuel costs, as well as environmental costs. Anti-nuclear activists are only partly to blame for fossil fuels’ dominance.

     

     while the promise of cheap and oil independent energy have fostered its development.

     

     Oil produces a very small percentage of electrical energy and this “promise” of cheap energy would be better described as a hypothesis with a very low probability for success. I’m a big fan of solar but the world has never seen a cost effective working example, or even a credible study demonstrating the ability of wind and solar to generate more than roughly 30% of our energy because of its intermittent nature.

     

     nuclear energy today is not much different than the nuclear energy of the 1970’s. Yes, newer computers and safety mechanisms have entered the scene, allowing for a greater amount of control and containment, yet the industry as a whole has barely changed at all.

     

     I don’t get your point. Look up in the sky. Note that every airliner has two wings with an even number of engines hanging from pylons and three tail feathers just like they did in the 1970′s. Why do you suppose that is?

     

     Nuclear, coal, and natural gas, all generate electricity in basically the same way. Hot gases are allowed to expand inside a chamber that isn’t big enough to hold that much volume. As the hot gas exits the chamber is must pass through a turbine. This causes the turbine to rotate. The rotating turbine shaft is connected to a generator. When the gas finally exits the engine it is cooler and slower, having given up most of its energy to the turbine.

     

     The only difference between them is where they get the energy to make the hot gases that feed the turbines. Nuclear and coal heat water to create steam while natural gas is ignited directly.

     

     Then, last year following the tragedy in Japan and the Fukushima reactor meltdown, nuclear energy may have been dealt its deathblow.

     

      I seriously doubt that. A lot of reactors are being built with more in the pipeline. BBC News commissioned a poll that included 23,231 people in 23 countries shortly after the Japan quake:

     

     

     

    Note how the UK and the US are bucking this currently popular trend. One can argue that it is incredibly unwise of Germany to invest hundreds of billions in nuclear, which emits no more GHG than solar, that has also earned billions in power exports, only to throw away all of that sunk cost as well as income, to protect themselves from the extremely remote possibility of having to deal with a nuclear incident. One could argue that using their neighbor’s power to stabilize their renewables is cheating and that removing all of the low emission nuclear energy they were contributing to the European grid is selfish.

     

     For the cynics out there,

     

     Here is one definition I found for a cynic: a faultfinding captious critic; especially : one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest.

     

     In other words, cynicism is in the eye of the beholder. One can be cynical of new and improved nuclear power. Quite obviously, the German’s want to rid themselves of it for selfish (as well as irrational) reasons.

     

     the fall of nuclear seems to be nothing more than a free path for oil and coal to infiltrate and overtake every last segment of the energy market. Yet, this may not be true.

     

     To date, this is unequivocally true. For every nuclear power plant going off line more fossil fuels are being burned. What you mean to say is that some day we may find technology capable of replacing fossil fuels without the help of nuclear.

     

     Yet, by the start of 2011, political stagnation and vacillating opinions had essentially kept the nuclear power off dead. Indeed, only two of the plants had come offline and this was primarily due to technical (not policy) related issues.

     

     That’s called Democracy. It’s a good thing.

     

     Not to mention, the nuclear shutdown would seem to increase Germany’s reliance of imported oil.

     

     It will have no impact at all on oil imports.

     

     Initially, to replace lost capacity from nuclear shut down, Germany proposed funding two new clean-coal fired plants. These proposals were quickly withdrawn due to a mix of environmental and policy backlash. … It would seem as if Germany’s removal of nuclear has given wind and solar a chance rather than simply allow for coal to encroach.

     

    It is already encroaching.

     

     Deutsche Bank analysts estimated an extra 370 million tones of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through 2020, compared with Societe Generale’s extra 406 million tones.

     

     Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/31/us-german-nuclear-carbon-idUSTRE74U2Y220110531

     

    Only time will tell. Yet for the United States,a country constantly plagued by energy hunger, closing our 104 (perhaps soon 105) nuclear power plants will be a difficult transition.

     

     As the above poll results suggest, the U.S. and the U.K are not likely to follow in Germany’s anti-nuclear footsteps. I don’t know what “constantly plagued by energy hunger” means, but certainly we are no more plagued by it than any other industrialized nation. I predict that the United States will usher in a new era of improved nuclear power before it’s all over.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    • By Andrew Holland on March 26, 2012 at 7:57 am

      Russ – thanks for your long post. I’m not sure where your response is based on my article – and where its based on the other one you saw. 

      One thing that I think you all should note here: I’m not saying that the decision made by the Germans is a good one – but what I am saying is that this didn’t come out of nowhere. It is rooted in recent German history as well as current German perception. Their “Energie Wende” is a deliberate attempt to get away from the past. I would’ve argued with them to reduce coal and dependence on Russian gas first, but they essentially decided to do nuclear first. 

      Its not necessarily rational, but it is going to happen. I’ll bet you! 

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  4. By Trop on March 27, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Andrew: you say:

    Their actions show that they are more anti-nuclear than pro-climate action, and that is unfortunate.

    why?  

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    • By Andrew Holland on March 27, 2012 at 11:01 am

      Trop -

      I think its pretty clear that the priority of the German plan is to close down nuclear power more than closing down coal or gas. I asked many people in Germany about the climate protection v. nuclear trade-off – and they refused to engage on it. They simply said something like “We will do both”. 

      There is an argument that forcing the closure of nuclear really forces the utilities to move away from a centralized grid. But – in the short to medium term – it seems that it just forces more reliance on coal and gas. I am convinced that the Germans are going towards a 80-90% cut of GHGs by 2050, but it just seems to me that over the 10-15 year time horizon, its better to reduce emissions faster by replacing the big, centralized coal plants with wind and solar. Then you can replace the nukes. The Germans seem to have prioritized closing the nukes over closing the coal plants.

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  5. By notKit P on March 28, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Russ makes an excellent point,

     

    “I don’t get your point. Look up in the sky. Note that every airliner has two wings with an even number of engines hanging from pylons and three tail feathers just like they did in the 1970′s. Why do you suppose that is? ”

     

    By the late 60s, experience with various designs of 50 MWe prototypes had given way to 500 MWe LWR. One reactor vessel inside one containment building feeding one steam turbine. This gave way to 1000 MWe LWR and now 1500 MWe LWR inside double containment bullrings.

     

    While it may look the same on the outside from a distance, the nuclear industry has made great strides in 40 years. New fuel assemblies are loaded in the core each refueling outage. Easily a 100% improvement in performance.

     

    We also have 40 years of experience of reactors surviving earthquakes. All 104 US plants will review seismic risk using probability risk assessment (PRA) based on the latest USGS data.

     

    You also have to look at what people do rather than what they say. Shutting down 40+ year old nuke plants with a capacity of 500 MWe rather than upgrading to new standards sounds like shutting a plant down early and abandoning nuclear but an expected economic decision. I will believe Germany will shut down modern 1400 MWe nuke plants when I see it. Most likely I will live not live long enough.

     

    It is not just nuclear power. Politicians are always getting utilities to agree to shut down a power plant 10 years after they are out office and 20 years after the original design of the power plant. When it comes time to look at the cost of a new power plant, the current politician agrees to deal to shut down a power plant 10 years after they are out office.

     

    Power plants do get old and put out to pasture without any deals. Watch closely and there will be a story in the local paper lamenting the job lost and decrease it tax base.

     

    The trend in the US is too keep even those with a capacity of 500 MWe running. If 9/11 or the damage in Japan had occurred 5 years earlier, the trend might have been different. All those expensive upgrade that outsiders did nor see already got done.

     

    Using a tsunami in Japan as an excuse to shut down nukes in Germany, is not unexpected. Who know what time will bring. California’s Governor Moonbeam is rethinking nuclear claiming to be older and wiser.

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    • By Andrew Holland on March 28, 2012 at 11:44 am

      Your point is a good one, and on the technical aspects I agree with you. Reactors are undoubtedly safer and more efficient than they’ve ever been. Personally, I think its stupid for the Germans to shut them down.

      And yet, they will, because this is an emotional, not rational, decision. This will definitely be an election issue over the next several elections, but any politician who wants to back-off the phase-out will be penalized by the electorate.  I actually got the feeling in my conversations with policymakers in Germany that many (those outside the Green Party) would rather keep them open, but they’re hamstrung by popular opinion which is approaching 90% opposed to nuclear. 

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  6. By Optimist on April 2, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Only an Idiot wlll expect Germany to give up Clean Green Nuke Energy.

    Nuclear Energy is Green Energy? Only if CO2 is your only yardstick. And you ignore the issue of nuclear waste. And you ignore the threat of a dirty bomb.

    Seems like (some) clever people make a lot of assumptions…

    That’s irrational. Nuclear is less dangerous than any other energy source.

    Categorically true. However, ONE nuclear event has the potential to poison an area for centuries. So, while it does great on average, the reality is that there will ALWAYS be accidents, and those accidents tend to have bigger consequences than with other sources of energy.

    And yet, they will, because this is an emotional, not rational, decision.

    Accusing the Germans of emotional, not rational, decisions? Wow! That is rich. I would say the Germans see things a little different than you do. And that’s a good thing. We need diversity.

    Besides, if anybody has the potential to crack the holy grail of renewable energy, it would be the Germans.

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  7. By Russ Finley on April 6, 2012 at 11:24 pm

     

    Nuclear Energy is Green Energy? Only if CO2 is your only yardstick.

     

    The corn ethanol lobby claims their product is green. Some more parameters to consider when measuring the negative impact of energy sources:

     

    ·         Oceanic dead zones

     

    ·         Food price increases

     

    ·         River ecosystem destruction

     

    ·         Forest ecosystem destruction

     

    ·         Sulfur, particulate, and mercury air pollution

     

    I’m sure the list could be much longer.

     

    And you ignore the issue of nuclear waste.

     

    The fact that a half century of power production has created so little waste that it can actually be stored on site should give you a feel for how little waste it generates. Plans are afoot to burn that waste as fuel in new nuclear designs, and if that never comes to fruition, storage in safe sites is largely a matter of defeating the anti-nuclear power lobby so it can be put in a safer place.

     

    And you ignore the threat of a dirty bomb.

     

    Some countries that have made nuclear weapons don’t have a nuclear power plant (ironically, Israel, which exists thanks to World War II Germany, is one of them). They built themselves a small, non-power producing reactor for what they needed, like the U.S. did for the first nuclear bombs. Most countries with nuclear power don’t have nuclear weapons. If somebody wants to build themselves a dirty bomb, they don’t need a nuclear power plant. The dirty bomb idea is an example of fear mongering by the anti-nuclear power lobby.

     

    Categorically true (Nuclear is less dangerous than any other energy source). However, ONE nuclear event has the potential to poison an area for centuries.

     

    “Centuries” is an exaggeration. There have been a total of two events. Chernobyl created Europe’s largest wildlife preserve. People are already moving back into the areas of the Fukushima exclusion zone. Consider reading these two articles:

     

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2012/03/16/nuclear-scientist-responds-to-critics-of-his-belief-that-fukushima-refugees-are-victims-of-fear-not-radiation/2/

     

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2012/03/10/fukushimas-refugees-are-victims-of-irrational-fear-not-radiation/2/

     

    So, while it does great on average, the reality is that there will ALWAYS be accidents, and those accidents tend to have bigger consequences than with other sources of energy.

     

    From Wikipedia “The Banqiao dam and Shimantan Reservoir dam failures killed an estimated 171,000 people; 11 million people lost their homes.”

     

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banqiao_Dam

     

    Read the section on pollution due to PCBs and dioxin:

     

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polychlorinated_biphenyl

     

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/91/Superfund_sites.svg/300px-Superfund_sites.svg.png

     

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superfund

     

    Gas Works Park in Seattle was shut down half a century ago. There are still signs warning people not to wade in the water in the adjacent lake.

     

     Source: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/pubs/0203089.pdf

     

    Accusing the Germans of emotional, not rational, decisions? Wow! That is rich.

     

    Wow, that is rich? You lost me on that one. Are you suggesting that Germany is incapable of, has never been known to make, irrational national policy? The German people are afraid of their nuclear power plants. That is why they want to abandon them.

     

    Besides, if anybody has the potential to crack the holy grail of renewable energy, it would be the Germans.

     

     The decision to both build so much nuclear power and to dismantle it can’t both be considered smart moves. I’m a big fan of solar, but I’m also a realist. Renewables can only scale so far:

     

     Germany’s Q-Cells, once the largest photovoltaic cell maker, earlier this week declared bankruptcy, another in a growing list of insolvent solar manufacturers.

     

     Legislators in Germany, Spain, and other European markets are scaling back financial incentives in the form of feed-in tariffs, reducing demand.

     

     Source: http://www.sustainablebusiness.com/index.cfm/go/news.display/id/23579

     

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