The nuclear lobby in trouble as Germany exits nuclear power
Chancellor Angela Merkel surprised many, and stunned the nuclear lobby in other countries with her May 30th announcement of a complete shut down of all Germany’s reactors by January 1st, 2022. This includes the early shutdown of 14 among Germany’s total of 17 reactors, well before that date. At present, nuclear power covers around 22 percent of German electricity consumption.
The German chancellor has, in nine months, gone from calling nuclear power plants a safe, reliable and economical “bridge” to renewable energy, with her coalition government easing regulatory constraints on extending reactor lifetimes, to pushing the biggest and fastest nuclear exit strategy in any country using nuclear power. The international nuclear lobby, already easing off in its constant PR and advertising effort because of the Fukushima disaster, has reacted in sometimes strange ways to Germany’s historic and courageous decision.
To be sure, critics of the decision can claim it is ‘only political’: Merkel has political rivals among the Social Democrats and the anti-nuclear Greens, and cynics can say her ‘atomic epiphany’ following the Fukushima disaster is simple opportunism…
French reaction to the German decision has verged on the hysterical. German-French relations were already at a low point because of Germany’s refusal to join president Sarkozy’s war initiative in Libya and German trade surpluses with France, which continue to mount. At the highest level, including spokespersons of Sarkozy’s ruling UMP political party, the German decision has been called “betrayal” of France’s claimed leading role in the fight against climate change by massive use of supposedly low-carbon, safe and economical nuclear power.
Critics are however forced to move along to technical, economic and industrial factors which, they claim, will make the Merkel plan both technically difficult and a grave economic handicap for Germany, whose export-oriented, trade surplus economic status is the envy of most other G8 countries, except Japan, envied by the USA, France, UK and Italy. Of these, three are still committed to nuclear power, but Italy has recently decided to abandon any restart or relaunch of nuclear power, and obtains zero percent of its electricity from the atom.
CABLES AND ALTERNATIVE SUPPLIES
The ‘technological challenge’ claim is that Germany must rapidly carry out expansion of Germany’s electricity-delivery network costing at least 10 billion-euro ($14.4 billion), and start work on an even more expensive Smart Grid, as well as import more nuclear electricity from France. While the first two needs are rational, and existed before any decision to exit nuclear power, the need – or even the possibility – of importing more nuclear electricity from France is in fact zero. The reason is simple: French electric power exports are steadily shrinking as France itself imports more and more power. On a year-round basis, France imports slightly more electricity from Germany, than vice versa.
In winter 2010-2011, French net imports of electricity attained 9,600 MW, the output of nearly 10 of its 58 reactors when able to fully deliver their design capacity. This itself is decreasingly possible. EDF’s attempt, in early winter 2010 to operate all 58 reactors simultaneously, under full media coverage, was a failure because several reactors were unable to reach their design capacity. With ever increasing French national power needs to meet air conditioning and cooling energy demand in summer, the country’s ability to export power will continue to decline for years ahead, making it for the least unlikely, and risky for Germany to count on French nuclear electricity to plug the gap in power supplies.
The main claim of non-German critics of the exit plan is that very heavy spending is needed on cables to connect proposed but not planned or funded, new large-scale offshore wind farms, with per-kiloWatt capital costs as high as 5,000 euro ($7,000) excluding power cables. This is of course a very high level of initial capital cost – but is also the same as French nuclear power plants, called ‘new generation’ such as the French EPR being built, very slowly and at extreme high cost, in Finland.
Germany’s large-size offshore windfarms, if they are built, would be located in the North Sea, delivering power to Germany’s ‘manufacturing belt’, located in the south. As the nuclear lobby never fails to mention, offshore windfarms are ‘leading edge technology’ and expensive, therefore making the German exit strategy uneconomic and unworkable, but offshore wind is most surely not the only non-nuclear power supply alternative available to Germany.
Others notably include natural gas-fueled power plants, typically costing less than 600 euro per kiloWatt ($850 per kW), and around $ 1,000 per kW with full carbon sequestration, able to utilise cheap shale and fracture gas and coal seam gas extracted ‘in situ’ without any coal mining operations. Gas turbine plants can also utilise pipeline gas, the costs of which will tend to fall as shale and “frac’ gas, and coalseam gas supplies rise in Europe. Interestingly, French political opposition to shale and ‘frac’ gas development in France, which has very large resources of this gas, is extreme high. The environmental case is showcased, but the rationale is also advanced that cheap gas supplies would menace the credibility and apparent low cost of French nuclear power, by providing a serious alternative.
In Germany, this alternative supply can be drawn on, if necessary by importing gas from neighboring Poland, which has prioritized the national development of shale and coalseam gas. The environmental impacts of shale gas can be compared with those of Fukushima, and presented to the general public.
Large subsidies or power price support for German industrial users is claimed to be necessary, following the exit decision. If not, this claim goes on, Merkel’s decision to exit nuclear power will stunt growth in Europe’s largest economy, can tilt Germany into trade deficit, raise inflation and trigger a retreat into further debt that will make the euro more certain to collapse. Ironically, it is Germany’s relative economic strength due to its large trade surpluses that presently ‘defends the euro’, far more than fiscal deficit-riddled France with its aging and increasingly dangerous nuclear power plants.
Importing French nuclear power, when or if it might be available would also be expensive. French electric power prices, although well behind German prices, are officially set to rise at least 30 percent by 2014.
The reason is simple: nuclear power plant costs, especially the vast dismantling and decommissioning costs of its increasingly aged – and therefore dangerous – reactor fleet. No firm cost figures are supplied by the French government or its nuclear corporate elite on this subject, but several billion euro per reactor, and a timespan of at least 10 years per reactor, are likely. During this extended period and with no surprise, decommissioning cost will most certainly rise further – inevitably raising electricity prices and/or taxes paid by French consumers, and the price for any consumers of imported French power.
What pro-nuclear critics of Merkel’s decision call her ‘atomic epiphany’ was on one hand driven by the entirely democratic and largely spontaneous wave of opposition to nuclear power, following the Fukushima disaster. In Germany, where 250,000-person anti-nuclear demonstrations are commonplace, ignoring this would be electoral suicide, completely unlike the tepid and ambivalent reaction from France’s supine general public, subjected to constant pro-nuclear bias in all French media, especially the State-owned TV channels and radio stations.
Merkel’s exit strategy was on the other hand also driven by far less-evident and obvious factors, including the 180-degree turn on nuclear power by “Corporate Germany”, or ‘Germany AG’.
German corporate reaction was another surprise to non-German critics. Corporate response to the decision was almost euphoric. Following the Merkel announcement, Germany’s DAX stock market index showed its biggest one-day rise in weeks, May 31st. Explanations may seem complex, because as recently as Autumn 2010 German corporate chiefs were heavily insisting that nuclear reactor operating lifetime extensions must be provided more easily by Merkel’s coalition government. In particular the CEOs of the two largest nuclear power using utilities, E.On and RWE, and the Deutsche Bank president publicly threatened a probable complete halt to corporate investment in alternative energy, if Merkel did not extend nuclear plant lifetimes, and at least as important, if she continued with her government’s plan to impose special new nuclear plant operating taxes.
Merkel’s coalition government had made it clear that in return for longer operating lifetimes, nuclear plant operators would pay new taxes designed to help Germany fight its massive fiscal deficits. These taxes, or nuclear special levy, was set on a base able to reach as high as 2 billion euro per year, which would almost wipe out the overall subsidies received from government, by the nuclear sector. Other than making any increase of the reactor fleet impossible, the sector would also have to shoulder the almost open-ended, but coming costs of reactor dismantling and decommissioning.
By late 2010, the calculations and the negotiating stances of German corporate leaders had therefore changed – well before the Fukushima disaster. This, and rising German popular protests, only triggered the 180-degree changes that were coming.
In brief and like anyplace else, nuclear power is so expensive that Corporate Germany or ‘Germany AG’ seeks any way to get consumers and taxpayers to share the burden of decommissioning and dismantling the country’s aging plants. These are aging in the exact same way as those of France, USA, Japan and UK – the ‘old nuclear nations’ with nuclear plants dating back in some cases to the 1960s. Corporate Germany had already accepted that an improved power network to avoid potential blackouts was needed, especially due to Germany’s burgeoning windfarm capacity and aging power transport infrastructures. Paying for this, and for reactor decommissioning became at least as important to Corporate Germany as power price subsidies to the largest users, especially the very profitable car makers in the south, notably Daimler AG and Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) AG, and their equipment suppliers including Siemens AG (SIE) and Swiss ABB Ltd.
For Merkel, the nuclear exit strategy will be a test case on whether an export based industrialized nation can rely far more on clean energy without eroding corporate production and profit. To be sure, the exporter nation called China with the world’s biggest trade surplus, although busily building nuclear plants, presently obtains an unimpressive 2 percent of its electricity from the atom, proving that nuclear energy is in no way critical and basic to achieving the status of ‘industrial exporter country’
NUCLEAR POWER PROTECTS THE CLIMATE AND SAVES OIL
Especially in France, but not the USA where shale and “frac” gas and coalseam gas already cover about 40 percent of national gas supply, the gas-alternative to nuclear power is especially criticized. Well-known and exaggerated claims for ‘low carbon’ nuclear, versus ‘dirty gas’ are wheeled out on France’s 5 State-owned TV channels almost daily.
Compared with nuclear power which is intensely dependent on oil for mining uranium, shipping and processing uranium into fuel rods, transporting and storing nuclear wastes, building and servicing nuclear plants, and dismantling them, natural gas-fueled electricity produces about the same overall CO2 emission per unit kWh output. The data and analyses provided by defenders of “low carbon nuclear” theses carefully omit the large oil-energy subsidies, and therefore CO2 emissions produced by nuclear power when “full cycle” analysis is made. They of course never mention the open-ended costs, and enduring risks of decommissioned nuclear plants.
Critics of Germany’s exit strategy fail to mention the “cheap gas” alternative to nuclear power, except to claim it is environmentally and climatically dangerous, simply because it is the biggest and cheapest available alternative.
Defenders of nuclear power also make a point of ignoring the drastic environmental damage caused by nuclear power ‘over the horizon’, in low-income African countries, such as Niger, where France sources a large part of its uranium needs. The French semi-private nuclear corporation Areva’s uranium mines in Niger are a copybook example of destroying the environment and exploiting low-paid workers “out of sight – out of mind” in a faraway developing country, with disastrous mine worker health and safety conditions, while claiming this “protects the environment and climate”.
Critics claim Germany must build new and costly high-volume lines to France, to raise imports of nuclear-origin electricity from France’s 58 nuclear reactors. Doing this, Germany would only import unsafe, unreliable, uneconomic, inadequate and environmentally dirty nuclear power supplies from a country that is increasingly unable to satisfy its own national peak power demands, due to its over-reliance on nuclear power.
Critics of the environmental impact of fossil-based electric power (imagining of course that uranium is somehow not a fossil mineral), who loudly defend “clean” nuclear power, like James Hansen, or James ‘Gaia’ Lovelock will of course not be giving their well-paid nuclear pep talks at the edge of Fukushima’s total exclusion zone. This is now being extended due to deadly radiation extending at least 50 – 70 kilometres from the ruined power plants which will spew as much as 50 – 250 times the radiation released by the Hiroshima atom bomb of 1945, making forced evacuation needed far beyond the initially hoped-for 20 kilometres.
Already, some 90,000 to 125,000 Japanese have been forcibly evicted from their homes, farms and places of work due to “clean, cheap and safe” nuclear power. These Japanese victims of nuclear power can be asked if they think nuclear power ‘protects the environment and mitigates climate change’, in the same way as mass protestors against nuclear power in Germany. The fight against nuclear power has scored a massive victory in Germany.
By Jane Burgermeister – November 8, 2010