Opinion: Is Germany Making the Wrong Decision?

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You may surely know it by now : Germany decided to phase out completely all its nuclear power plants by 2022. This is done for political reasons as the local Greens are gaining power.

Some people are cheering as they believe this is great news for the environment. I, however, believe this is utterly wrong for the reasons I will outline in today’s article.

Today’s major environmental problem is climate change (or global weirding if you prefer).

You might believe that given the importance of the Greens in Deutschland, electricity emits little carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per kWh. This clearly isn’t the case as I have previously wrote about it in a previous article for my own blog.

According to the book Sustainable Energy – without hot air, a French kWh is responsible for around 80 grams of CO2 equivalent ; A US one, 613 grams and a German one, 601 grams.

As you can see, German electricity is around eight times dirtier than the French one. The reasons for such a fact is simple : one country chose nuclear over coal. (to be honest and fair, France didn’t have coal anymore, as contrary to Germany…)

I am not saying that Germany should push for more nuclear. This isn’t my argument…

The Germans are, to my humble point of view, taking the problem by the wrong end: They shouldn’t be thinking about phasing out nuclear as soon as possible, but to phase out coal, which still accounts for 40 percent of local electricity production.

Renewables are witnessing an exponential growth there, and these are great news. But replacing nuclear by solar and wind won’t cut emissions. On the other hand, replacing coal by those same energy sources would literally benefit everybody.

It is widely admitted that coal is by very far the dirtiest energy source. Indeed, The Economist dubbed it as early as 2002 ” the Environmental Enemy Number One “.

Nuclear might be a problem as safety rules and regulations aren’t as tight and as enforced as they should be. Its waste might still be a problem for a few decades (endeavors towards recycling it are progressing), but coal is a much bigger problem.

Did you know that it takes a ton of coal to produce as much electricity as a gram of Uranium ?

Germany is a model for all governments for their support to renewable energy sources. But what always puzzled me is their hate of nuclear.

Sure, it isn’t exactly the perfect solution as the recent catastrophe of Fukushima in Japan have shown. But as I stated on my blog: “ Nuclear isn’t the solution, but there is no solution without nuclear.”

As you might have understood, and to infer this post, I don’t see any antagonism between renewables and nuclear. As a matter of fact, I see an important complementarity between the two.

I look forward to reading your opinion.

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About Author

Fascinated by sustainability and cleantech since 2004, Edouard wrote both his Bachelor of Arts' dissertation and Master's thesis on sustainable energy topics. He haven't stopped writing on these subjects ever since. A French Master's graduate in international management, Edouard has had several experiences in Marketing and Communications in Europe. He worked for firms as diverse as a German water treatment company, a leading French business school and lately a Belgian automation specialist. He is currently for hire globally. Since 2007 Edouard has been selecting for his own blog the latest headlines and best researches on sustainable development, climate change, cleantech and the world energy sector. With over 1,600 published articles, he is read all over the world. On Cleantechies, Edouard has been proposing since June 2009 news articles and opinion pieces on on French and European policies. Don't hesitate to contact him as he is always interested in discussing with new people.

13 Comments

    • The decision to drop nuclear power is a very intelligent move.

      I live on a fault line that has nuclear power plants operating in close

      proximity. The lessons in Japan will bring about the necessary changes in energy policy. Focus on the alternatives to coal plants, because there

      are alternatives to coal.

  1. The reason why the German government decided to phase out nuclear has little to do with the green party in that country. The German chancellor comes from a scientific background, and when she witnessed the catastrophe in Japan she realised that if this technologically advanced nation could not predict and prevent such an event then they are essentially unstoppable. While Germany is not at risk of a tsunami, other events could have the same effect and a simple risk analysis of likelihood combined with outcome clearly comes down against the continuation of this power generation method.

    You are right of course about the need to remove coal from the power equation as a priority. I would however question just how green nuclear is when you carry out a full cradle to grave analysis of its carbon cost and include the manufacture of the fuel at the start and the decommissioning process at the end.

  2. I’m in favor of continued progress and development in all forms of energy, nuclear included. But finding a safe place for nuclear power production today is not trivial with what seems like an increasing frequency of severe unpredictable events – hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods. The point is well made about Japan, a wealthy, technologically advanced nation, being unprepared and unable to maintain control.

  3. Thank you two for your iterest in this article !

    > Philip : I think you are right in saying both coal and nuclear industries are competting for the same subsidies.

    > Paul : I read a few lifecycle analyses about carbon dioxide emissions by energy sources. Coal always range around one kilogram of CO2 equivalent per kWh. Nuclear ranges from 6 to 50 grams, depending of how you enrich the uranium and so on.

    The safety of course is a big issue, but new reactors designs such as the EPR improve it many times over.

    I will soon publish here a new article on why I support this energy source. So for this and for many other articles, stay tuned !

  4. It sure seems that of all the evils to choose from that nuclear is a lesser one for Germany, however with the population density of Germany there can not be one mistake. The Germans no longer enjoy wild mushrooms as much I hear, thanks to Chernobyl. You see – one mistake is just too devastating.

    The real question is what to do with the waste? The big topic that no one has the answer for. Without this answer nuclear must go ASAP – I for one am tired of the nuclear promises and excuses, it’s time has come and gone. It comes with too much politics and is commercially impossible without government support.

    We have such good alternatives that spawn new jobs and industry as the Germans have so valiantly proven; solar employs ~ 400’000 new direct jobs. By forcing the issue on nuclear again the Germans may well establish themselves as yet again the solver of world energy problems as with solar. Possibly they will take the old NaS battery design and commercialize it as NGK has been doing in Japan, solving possibly the next big item for renewable energy – storage. With proper leaders such as Kennedy during the cold war with the space race – many amazing things can be solved with human ingenuity, sometimes what it takes is leadership and a challenge. Kudos to Merkel

  5. HP Baumeister on

    No question that we must wean ourselves of coal, and for that matter oil, anywhere in the world.

    But to say: “Its waste might still be a problem for a few decades (endeavors towards recycling it are progressing)…..” is an incredible, irresponsible understatement, and at best wild speculation!

    Nuclear waste (and decommissioning) is a guaranteed problem that we are saddling generations upon generations with, at their expense. We are not even paying into a fund that would cover these future cost! (something like the recycling fees we have to pay at consumer electronics stores). Every nuclear kWh should have to have such a fee added.

    Besides, after Fukushima, no one will insure these power plants.

    In other words, another fund has to be created that covers the cost of nuclear disasters. If all these costs are fairly recognized, and visible, the lure of nuclear power would fizzle (or fission?) quickly.

  6. Jessica Pryor on

    Germany made an informed risk assessment of their nuclear power plants and reacted to their constituents.After watching the devastating event that unfolded in Japan and how we all looked on powerless Germany decided they did not what to run that risk.

    However we do face a challenge of where our energy is to come from if not from nuclear? Renewable energy sources are keenly gaining momentum all over the world even in power hungry China. The most recent IPCC report stated that by 2050, 80% of our energy could come in the form of renewable energy if the right government policies were in place. However, before this time we need to curb our emissions and that means removing coal from our energy system but will this gap be filled with nuclear?

  7. @HP Braumeister:

    Also before Fukushima no commercial party wanted to insure a nuclear power plant. All nuclear powerplants worldwide are insured, for free, by their local government. This amounts to a tremendous hidden subsidy, that nuclear proponents do not like to talk about.

    @Edouard Stinger: Germany already experienced radiopactive waste seeping into their groundwater, from a “permanent” deposit only a few decennia old. Just imagine what can go wrong in the remaining 380 000 years that the waste remains dangerous. Nuclear is not clean, it is dirty and immoral and should not be promoted on a website called cleantechies.

  8. I agree with you Jessica. Nuclear may perhaps be a solution to fill the gap before renewables take over. And even by then, nuclear will I believe prove to be a sound solution.

    What is key is security. It has to be enforced in the strictest way possible. Collusion between governments and companies as it occurred in Japan have to stop.

  9. HP Baumeister on

    @Edouard Stenger

    ….. I hate to say it this way, but you are simply not “getting” it: Again: Nuclear is not competitive today if the various subsidies mentioned above are priced in properly, and – more importantly – it’s immoral vis-a-vis future gennerations (if not the current….. see Japan).

    Please be specific when you talk about this imminent recycling of the waste….. what do you know that we don’t?

    Do you have any specific knowledge in this area? Don’t leave us in nuclear darkness.

  10. HP : wind needs subsidies and solar as well with feed in tariffs.

    You say that nuclear is “immoral”. But are solar and wind moral ? Is covering deserts inhabited by endangered species a good thing ?

    Concerning the recycling, please check out :

    http://www.elrst.com/2009/10/26/2009/02/03/the-end-of-nuclear-waste/

    and

    http://www.elrst.com/2009/02/10/the-end-of-nuclear-waste-part-ii/

    Nuclear is already use to recycle old nuclear bombs.(cf. http://www.edouardstenger.com/2009/10/26/10-reasons-to-support-nuclear-power/ ) I find this alone a good application…

    Once again HP, I don’t think nuclear is THE solution. I merely think that it has its place in today’s energy mix.

    My viewpoint on energy is this : efficiency first, renewables second, nuclear third…

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