The Post-Nuclear Transition

BERLIN – The Fukushima disaster in March reminded the world, 25 years after Chernobyl, that nuclear energy is anything but clean, secure, and affordable. Unfortunately, another nuclear catastrophe was needed to trigger a fresh debate on the use of nuclear power.

Germany’s decision in June to phase out nuclear power by 2022 has provoked irritation among its pro-nuclear neighbors. Other European countries have yet to indicate whether they will follow Germany’s example; a world free from nuclear energy is hard for its supporters to imagine. Europe’s economic and ecological future, however, depends upon the rising opposition to this high-risk technology, such as in Italy, where a recent referendum delivered a large popular majority against nuclear energy.

In Germany, the idea of a nuclear phase-out has been gaining support ever since the Chernobyl disaster. Over the past few decades, anti-nuclear activists, together with their political representatives in the Green Party, have succeeded in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of protesters. In 2000, growing political pressure finally led to a consensus between the German government and energy companies, which agreed to limit the life span of nuclear-power plants to 32 years.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government withdrew from this agreement in 2010, but Fukushima forced the authorities to reconsider – and to permanently end the use of nuclear energy. German energy policy now depends once more on the future deployment of renewable energy sources. The Renewable Energy Sources Act, for instance, introduced in 2000 by a Social Democrat-Green government, has enabled the country to exceed all growth expectations in the alternative-energy sector, which now accounts for 20% of Germany’s total electricity consumption.

But, while Germany is now heading in the right direction, the security risks of nuclear power plants in neighboring countries, such as France and the Czech Republic, remain. There must be a general shift in both European and global energy policies. The current European stress tests of nuclear-power plants are a first step; but, as long as they are voluntary and under the operators’ control, they will be nothing more than political window dressing. For example, there are no plans to test any of the 143 nuclear power plants currently operating in the European Union for core safety risks, such as a terrorist attack or a plane crash.

The economic argument for renewable energy is also compelling. Nuclear power is an antiquated technology that requires billions of euros in subsidies; so far, German taxpayers have contributed €196 billion for this purpose. A German government study has estimated that, between 2010 and 2050, Germany could save more than €700 billion by relying on non-nuclear renewable energy instead of nuclear power or imported fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil.

The expansion of renewable energy production also holds great potential for boosting economic growth. Over the past decade, 370,000 new jobs have been created in the sector, and exports of renewable-energy technology are rising rapidly, totaling roughly €30 billion from 2006 to 2008.

At the same time, it would be short-sighted to assume that fossil fuels, especially coal, are a profitable and sustainable energy source. First, increased reliance on fossil fuels runs contrary to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol’s targets for reducing carbon emissions, as well as to the EU’s own climate-change objectives. Moreover, fossil-fuel costs fluctuate wildly with oil prices, and the centralized nature of nuclear and coal-fired power stations creates distribution problems.

The last decade has shown that increases in renewable-energy production actually reduce its costs. Wind energy is now competitive with conventional power plants, while rising gas and coal prices and the steady decline in renewable-energy costs imply that, within a few years, fossil fuels will be even less attractive. Moreover, revenues from “home-grown” energy tend to remain where they are generated, while the import bill for fossil fuels would be eliminated.

All of this can be done without having to bear the immense risk (and costs) of a nuclear catastrophe. Indeed, the idea of a “nuclear renaissance” is a myth. Nuclear accidents, public opposition, and high capital costs have already provoked a drastic drop in nuclear-energy investment; in the United States, no nuclear-power plant has been commissioned since the late 1970’s.

In Europe, the number of nuclear plants is declining, as old plants are decommissioned and public opinion in even traditionally pro-nuclear countries like France begins to shift: almost two-thirds of the French now believe that nuclear power stands in the way of an increase in renewable energy. In Italy, more than 90% of voters rejected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s plan for a return to nuclear-power generation, and the Japanese government recently announced that it plans to phase out nuclear energy in stages.

More needs to be done to accelerate the post-nuclear transition. More money from the EU budget now goes to nuclear research than to non-nuclear research and development, and more infrastructure funding goes to carbon capture and storage (CCS) and conventional energy than to renewable energies. The forthcoming negotiations on the EU’s 2014-2020 European budget are an opportunity to change direction and cut the funding for unpromising mega-projectslike the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) effort in southern France.

Shifting to renewable-energy sources will require enormous effort and major infrastructure investment. High-voltage transmission lines across the EU and storage facilities to overcome the problem of meeting basic energy demands will be crucial, as will decentralized distribution grids and higher investment in energy conservation.

Germany has taken the first step, but the transition to a fully renewable-energy-based economy must be a common European effort.