Nuclear Power: The Dream that Failed
April 30, 2012
Looking at nuclear power 26 years ago, this newspaper observed that the way forward for a somewhat moribund nuclear industry was “to get plenty of nuclear plants built, and then to accumulate, year after year, a record of no deaths, no serious accidents—and no dispute that the result is cheaper energy.” It was a fair assessment; but our conclusion that the industry was “safe as a chocolate factory” proved something of a hostage to fortune. Less than a month later one of the reactors at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine ran out of control and exploded, killing the workers there at the time and some of those sent in to clean up afterwards, spreading contamination far and wide, leaving a swathe of countryside uninhabitable and tens of thousands banished from their homes. The harm done by radiation remains unknown to this day; the stress and anguish of the displaced has been plain to see.
Then, 25 years later, when enough time had passed for some to be talking of a “nuclear renaissance”, it happened again (see article). The bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists of what has been called Japan’s “nuclear village” were not unaccountable apparatchiks in a decaying authoritarian state like those that bore the guilt of Chernobyl; they had responsibilities to voters, to shareholders, to society. And still they allowed their enthusiasm for nuclear power to shelter weak regulation, safety systems that failed to work and a culpable ignorance of the tectonic risks the reactors faced, all the while blithely promulgating a myth of nuclear safety.
Not all democracies do things so poorly. But nuclear power is about to become less and less a creature of democracies. The biggest investment in it on the horizon is in China—not because China is taking a great bet on nuclear, but because even a modest level of interest in such a huge economy is big by the standards of almost everyone else. China’s regulatory system is likely to be overhauled in response to Fukushima. Some of its new plants are of the most modern, and purportedly safest, design. But safety requires more than good engineering. It takes independent regulation, and a meticulous, self-critical safety culture that endlessly searches for risks it might have missed. These are not things that China (or Russia, which also plans to build a fair few plants) has yet shown it can provide.
In any country independent regulation is harder when the industry being regulated exists largely by government fiat. Yet, as our special report this week explains, without governments private companies would simply not choose to build nuclear-power plants. This is in part because of the risks they face from local opposition and changes in government policy (seeing Germany’s nuclear-power stations, which the government had until then seen as safe, shut down after Fukushima sent a chilling message to the industry). But it is mostly because reactors are very expensive indeed. Lower capital costs once claimed for modern post-Chernobyl designs have not materialised. The few new reactors being built in Europe are far over their already big budgets. And in America, home to the world’s largest nuclear fleet, shale gas has slashed the costs of one of the alternatives; new nuclear plants are likely only in still-regulated electricity markets such as those of the south-east.
Recently, the editorial board of theWashington Post asked if the world can fight global warming without nuclear power, looking to Germany and Japan for the answer.
Both countries are known for a nuclear shutdown path. In Japan, only one of the 54 nuclear reactors currently remains in operation. Germany has closed eights reactors following the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima in March 2011 and the remaining nine are scheduled to be closed by 2022.
That obviously must lead to rising emissions, the Post claims. Germany’s “electricity sector emits more carbon than it must after eight reactors shut down last year.”
If you look at the most recent emissions data, however, the opposite is happening. Germanyreduced its carbon emissions in 2011 by 2.1 percent despite the nuclear phase out. How can that be?
The cut in greenhouse gases was mainly reached due to an accelerated transition to renewable energies and a warm winter. In addition, the EU emissions trading system capped all emissions from the power sector. While eight nuclear power plants were shut down, solar power output increased by 60 percent. In 2011 alone, 7.5 gigawatts of solar were installed. By the end of last year, renewable energies provided more than 20 percent of overall electricity.
The Washington Post refers to critics of this transition who “reasonably predict that the country will instead rely on electricity imports from neighbors running old, reliable coal, gas and, yes, nuclear plants for years to come.”
So this means Germany would import electricity from neighboring countries, such as France, Poland, and the Czech Republic? It’s true, depending on time of day and year, that Germany imports electricity. However, even after shutting its eight oldest nuclear power plants, Germany is still a net exporter of electricity.
In 2011, Germany exported 6 TWh more than it imported, according to the industry federation German Association of Energy and Water Industries BDEW. Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic are not as concerned about providing electricity to Germany. On the contrary, they are mainly concerned about wind and solar power surges from Germany offsetting their own production of fossil and nuclear power. Additionally, German electricity exports to Europe’s nuclear power house France actually increased in 2011.
What does this tell us? The nuclear phase-out does not conflict with efforts to fight climate change. You can reduce emissions while shutting down nuclear power. And you can still supply industry and consumers with enough power.
By the end of 2011, Germany had reduced its CO2 emissions by more than 23 percent compared to 1990 levels, overshooting its Kyoto target. In addition, the country has build up a competitive renewable energy industry providing thousands of new jobs, even as competitors like China enter the game and catch up fast. In Germany, fighting climate change and phasing out nuclear power are two sides of the same coin.