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Germany Goes Non-Nuclear, Maybe

The failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan has prompted the German government to accelerate plans to decommission all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. It claims to have a plan in place to replace Germany’s nuclear power with renewable resources, maintaining both current electrical production and prices.

Before I offer my comments, I would like to summarize Germany’s 2008 electrical production based on this webpage:

Lignite Coal: 24%

Nuclear: 23%

Hard Coal: 20%

Natural Gas: 13%

Wind: 7%

Biomass: 4%

Hydro: 3%

Other: 3%

I admit that I’m not much of an expert in energy economics, but I would like to have asked the German government a few questions about their plans. Here goes:

Nuclear power plants require a great capital investment. By decommissioning them long before their useful lives are over, is this not a waste of society’s resources?

Let’s assume that renewable energy in Germany started 10 years ago. By the statistics stated above, the plan seems to have brought only 14% of Germany’s electrical needs. If we assume another 14% increase in the next 10 years, this means 9% still comes from nuclear plants by 2021. Where will any shortfall in electricity come from?

Since nuclear power has started, the world has seen only two serious accidents: Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is true that the people living in these areas have suffered a great hardship and it may be a century before this land is reclaimed. But aren’t the benefits of electricity gained from the world’s 400 or so operating nuclear reactors worth the price of a small amount of contaminated land?

What has worse environmental consequences: one nuclear power plant or the ten coal plants required to replace this electricity production from the one nuclear plant:

Peak Oil should be part of any country’s long term economic strategy. When the price of oil rises to $500 a barrel , there will undoubtedly be great economic dislocations in Germany. Wouldn’t nuclear power be an effective tool to minimize these effects?

If Germany shuts down all of its reactors, it will lose its experienced nuclear scientists, engineers, and workers. When nuclear power becomes more fashionable — and necessary — wouldn’t keeping a few plants operating to keep much of the expertise in place be good for Germany’s long term economic needs.

From my limited perspective in western Canada, Germany’s decision sounds like a knee jerk reaction based on activist vilification of nuclear power. While I have my doubts that any western democracy can engineer such a societal change, Germany may indeed have a workable master plan to be a good example of how to replace nuclear power with green power, which is not a bad goal.

But there is one more interesting angle to this story. A Russian energy company is building a new nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad (, right next to the western European power grid. There are plans for another plant in Lithuania and two more in western Belarus. I think the capital behind these projects is seeing the opportunity to sell the electricity to Germany as it closes down its nuclear plants.

By drawing nuclear-based electricity from Eastern Europe, Germany’s claim to have created a non-nuclear state will only be a sanctimonious one. Germany will only have abdicated its responsibility for the risk and betterment of nuclear power to other nations, while consuming the benefits.

But I could be wrong: Let’s see what happens in the next decade.

Published on 2011

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