By Len AcklandThis article has been updated since it was first posted to include links to sources of information. It is excerpted from a piece that appears in the July/August 2009 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The complete, foot-noted article can be found here. Len Ackland is co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism.
While the notion of a nuclear power “renaissance” is being peddled in the United States, China, Italy, and many other countries, Germany—the world’s largest exporter and the most powerful economy in the 27-member European Union—is pursuing the opposite path. Although Germany’s 82 million inhabitants currently get about one-fourth of their electricity from 17 domestic nuclear reactors, the country plans to phase out nuclear power completely by 2022 under an agreement reached in June 2000 between the German federal government and the country’s four major utilities. That same year, the German parliament passed a renewable energy act to aggressively promote solar, wind, and other alternatives that, along with efficiency and combined heat and power plants, were to restructure the country’s energy system. . .
As Germany prepares for its September 27 national parliamentary elections, the debate over nuclear power has again taken off. The central issue is whether or not the country can meet its ambitious greenhouse gas emission goals and simultaneously produce enough electricity without nuclear power plants as part of the mix. The government’s declared climate goals are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from the country’s 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The outcome of the debate, and the elections, will have a significant impact in Germany—and beyond. Observers around the world are watching Germany because it is the only major industrial power actively pursuing energy policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions through demand-reducing efficiency measures and supply-enhancing renewable energy while phasing out nuclear power. Indeed, nations such as Sweden that had similarly disavowed nuclear power are reconsidering their decisions, and many hold up France, which gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear, as a model.
The German aversion to nuclear power stems from the risks the technologies present, including a fear of reactor accidents, a decades-long concern about nuclear waste disposal, and worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nuclear proponents argue that this energy source doesn’t emit carbon dioxide and that nuclear power is necessary to prevent a deficit in the country’s electricity supply.
While the themes in the German debate are common to nuclear power arguments elsewhere, the German discussion is unusual because it focuses on the extension of lifetimes for operating reactors rather than on the construction of new plants. All involved recognize the subtext of the arguments though and the significance of the upcoming elections for the future of German nuclear power. The new government will decide the fate of existing reactors and will also determine if the investments needed to build a non-nuclear future will be forthcoming.
Electricity is the focus. When considering sources of greenhouse gas emissions, electricity should be distinguished from overall energy, or primary energy, which also includes the use of fuels for heating and transportation. Germany’s primary energy consumption in 2007 was: 33 percent oil, 26 percent coal, 23 percent natural gas, 11 percent nuclear power, and 7 percent renewable and other energy, according to federal government figures.
That same year nuclear power accounted for 22 percent of Germany’s electricity production, a drop from about 26 percent the previous year due in part to five nuclear plants being offline for lengthy periods. The other major electricity sources were coal at 49 percent, natural gas at 12 percent, and renewables at 14 percent. Electricity production, particularly from coal-fired power plants, is the single largest source of German greenhouse gases.
Higher energy efficiency and more renewables are the two key elements in the electricity mix proposed by experts who argue that Germany can both meet its energy needs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions without nuclear power. . .
The Environment Ministry’s January roadmap projects that coal will have a diminished, but significant, part in Germany’s energy mix by 2020. (Joachim Nitsch, “Lead Study 2008”) While calling for the portion of electricity from coal-fired plants to drop to 40 percent from the current 49 percent and urging the construction of combined heat and power plants, the ministry states that obsolete coal-fired plants should be replaced by newer, more efficient ones, even without CCS technology. Rainer Baake [executive director of German Environment Aid] has sharply criticized the ministry’s position on coal, arguing that new coal-fired plants would impede climate protection goals and curtail the investment in renewable energy needed to achieve the ministry’s objective of generating 30 percent of electricity with renewables by 2020—more than double the current contribution.
There is broad agreement that significant investment will be needed, not only to develop renewable resources but also to adapt the electricity transmission grid and create storage technologies to accommodate the irregular electricity flow from sources such as wind farms, for example. The Lead Study estimates that investment in renewables will require $12.7 billion–$15.2 billion a year in funding until 2020 to reach prescribed goals, and funding must increase thereafter. For Baake, the cost is more than worth it: “Protecting against climate change costs money, but too little protection will be at least ten times as expensive.” (Baake interview, Jahresbericht 2007/2008, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, p. 9, 18 Dec. 2008. www.duh.de)
Longer reactor lifetimes? The question of how much to invest in renewable energy sources is tied directly to the German debate over whether to extend the operating lifetimes for its 17 reactors. The June 2000 phaseout agreement, which became law as an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act in 2002, calls for a reactor operating lifetime of roughly 32 years, but that lifetime is based on the amount of electricity produced by a reactor rather than on calendar years and was arrived at primarily for political and not technical safety reasons. . .
Indeed, German utilities have for years been positioning themselves to extend the operating lifetimes of their older reactors. RWE and Energie Baden-Württemburg AG (EnBW) affirmed their intentions last October when they made decisions that will allow two older reactors to run into 2010 even though they were scheduled to be phased out this year. The utilities’ decisions to shutdown the Biblis A reactor south of Frankfurt and the Neckarwestheim 1 unit near Stuttgart for maintenance ensured this extension. The temporary shutdowns mean that prior to the September elections, neither plant will attain its electricity production quota, which would require it to close permanently. If the new government reverses the phaseout, the clock keeps running much longer for these and other reactors. In a setback to company efforts, a top German administrative court ruled in March 2009 that RWE and Vattenfall Europe AG, a separate utility, could not operate two of their reactors longer than planned.
Nuclear critics adamantly oppose lengthening reactor lifetimes and keeping the door open for new plants down the line. They say that longer operating times will simply mean more profits for the utilities, more nuclear waste to be disposed of at a time when Germany has no permanent repository for high-level waste, more risk of accidents, and less investment for renewable energy. . .
Acknowledging the profitability of running nuclear plants longer, the big four utilities offered last summer to contribute billions of dollars to the development of climate-friendly energy or to public subsidies in exchange for longer reactor lifetimes. At the annual meeting of the German Atomic Forum in May 2009, president Hohlefelder said the nuclear industry would detail its plans after the polls close on election day next September. He also proposed a partnership between the nuclear and renewable energy sectors. (German Atomic Forum, news release “Jahrestagung Kerntechnik 2009: Deutsches Atomforum fordert Neubewertung Kernenergiepolitik,” 12 May 2009. www.kernenergie.de )
Hohlefelder’s overture was soundly rejected by the growing renewable energy industry. “We argue against nuclear because according to our analysis there is not enough grid capacity for a lengthening of [reactor lifetimes] and the expansion of renewables,” says Björn Klusmann, managing director of the umbrella Association for Renewable Energy, which represents more than 5,000 companies and 30,000 individual members. He says that nuclear power plants, which provide base load electricity through continuous operation, require a transmission system different from one with a large contribution of renewables with their fluctuating supply. Once renewables provide more than 30 percent of the electricity – the government goal for 2020 that Klusmann sees as too conservative – then nuclear and renewables will be in direct conflict. “ It’s either them or us,” he says. . .
Safety, waste, and the nuclear legacy. The ongoing discussion of German nuclear power has revitalized debates about a slew of issues impacted by the energy source. Never far from the surface are issues of nuclear safety, which peaked in the years after the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. That accident accelerated the formation of Germany’s federal Environment Ministry on June 6, 1986, mainly through a combination of units from other ministries, and was still a major factor in September 1998, when parliamentary elections enabled the Social Democrats and Greens to form the coalition which pushed through the nuclear phaseout agreement.
Federal Environment Minister Gabriel said the [German] accidents demonstrated that the oldest seven German reactors should be shut down and the other 10 should be allowed to run somewhat longer than originally planned. The head of the federal Office of Radiation Protection endorsed the idea, saying the shutdowns would significantly improve reactor safety in the country.
Opposition to nuclear waste transportation and storage has also gained renewed attention. Water seepage problems at a low- to medium-level radioactive waste repository in Asse grabbed headlines last fall, and an estimated 15,000 anti-nuclear demonstrators gathered in early November at an interim storage facility near the north-German town Gorleben to protest the delivery of high-level nuclear waste from France. This waste stemmed from the French reprocessing of German nuclear power plant fuel rod assemblies at its sprawling La Hague facility in Normandy. Ten thousand police were on hand to clear the road of demonstrators, some carrying signs saying “Nuclear Power? No thanks.” While some news accounts highlighted the violence of the protest, others said it was less confrontational than earlier demonstrations against the waste shipments, which have usually occurred once a year although the previous delivery was in 2006.
On the opposite side, the utilities companies have seized the reopening of the debate to try to convince the public of the role they see for nuclear power in Germany’s future. . . (RWE Power, “Power: perspectives 2007; Nuclear power and its contributions to sustainable energy supply,” http://www.rwe.com/web/cms/de/55436/rwe-power-ag/ )
The role the nuclear phaseout debate will play in the September elections will become clearer when the campaigning kicks into high gear after the August holiday season. Still, Matthes notes, “We have a saying in Germany that you can’t win an election with energy policy, but you can lose an election with energy policy.“ Regardless of whether Germany sticks to the phaseout plan, the country will have to deal with a range of nuclear legacies from existing plants. They include the health claims of former uranium miners and nuclear workers, disputed studies about exposures to populations living around facilities, and the disposition of nuclear waste—both what has already been created and that which is to come. A total of 19 German reactors, including 12 commercial power reactors, are in various stages of decommissioning or dismantlement, with the costs borne by the utilities (and, ultimately, by consumers). Of this total, just two smaller reactors have been dismantled and the land recultivated, according to the Environment Ministry. Since the 2000 phaseout agreement, two commercial reactors have been shut down. The latest plant to close was the small 357-megawatt Obrigheim plant, operated by EnBW, which was shuttered in May 2005. Its decommissioning will continue until about 2020 and is estimated to cost approximately $634 million.
While estimates for the overall decommissioning and dismantling costs of German reactors are elusive, the companies have been required by law to „set aside“ about $40 billion to cover such work. Like just about everything concerning nuclear power in Germany, this “set aside“ is controversial because companies don’t have to keep these funds, which aren’t taxed, in a separate reserve account but can use them for other purposes. “We need to take this money out of the companies‘ hands and put it in a fund that can only be used for waste management,“ says Hermann Scheer, a Social Democrat member of parliament and major figure in the push for renewable energy in
Len Ackland teaches journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder and was editor of the Bulletin from 1984–1991. Research for this article was supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.