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Nuclear Follow-Up

March 23rd, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

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After attending a large anti-nuclear demonstration in Hannover this weekend, I brought some of the arguments I heard to the E.ON employees whom I teach English to and gave them a chance to respond.

Those of them who are involved in the nuclear branch of E.ON Energy are quite frustrated with the uncertainty resulting from the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster in Japan, as now the German government has decided to hold off on their plan to extend the operational lifetimes of seven nuclear power plants back to their original expiration dates. The stated reason is that we now need to re-evaluate the safety of these plants given what happened in Japan (although the reality is that they just want to kick this issue down the road until after this weekend’s elections).

At the demonstration I played Devil’s Advocate on behalf of the energy industry, and with my E.ON students I played Devil’s Advocate on behalf of the anti-nuclear crowd. Here are the three strongest points in favor of not extending the lifetimes of these nuclear plants, and how the E.ON employees responded.

1- Now that another nuclear disaster has taken place, we have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made there. Isn’t it sensible to put the lifetime-extensions on hold until we can look at that information and adjust our plans accordingly?

I put this question to someone who works in risk management, and while he said that it sounds like a good point on the surface, it’s actually meaningless when you look at the details. He walked me through the whole process of how risks are calculated and drew a graph of the probability curve of severe earthquakes occurring—a downward sloping line with low-intensity earthquakes coming in greater frequency to high-intensity earthquakes barely occurring at all. Prior to the 9.0-magnitude earthquake in Japan, the government had already evaluated the safety of the nuclear plants and determined that they could withstand any earthquake up to a magnitude that could be reasonably expected in Germany, which I believe is somewhere in the level-8 range.

The risk of a level-8 earthquake occurring here is still very small, and the risk of a level-9 quake is so small as to be statistically negligible. The fact that a level-9 quake occurred elsewhere in the world does nothing to change that calculation.

Nor does it factor into the equation that in a worst-case scenario—a nuclear explosion—a great deal of people will die. To an individual, death is death no matter what the cause. The harm to one person is the same whether the death is a result of a nuclear explosion or a car accident—the latter of which is far more likely.

Basically, the government spent years evaluating and re-evaluating the safety of these plants and determined that the risk of harm to the German people was low enough to justify continuing their operation until the planned expiration dates. The disaster in Japan doesn’t change that.

2- Given the problems associated with nuclear power—not just the potential for a disaster but the problem of nuclear waste disposal–shouldn’t we be working to make the switch to clean and renewable energy sources as quickly as possible? According to the demonstrators, Germany could potentially power the entire grid with renewable energy in five years’ time.

First of all, every E.ON employee is skeptical of the claim that Germany’s entire grid could in fact be powered by clean energy sources in five years’ time. But even if that were technically true, they said, it’s just not practical. The sun doesn’t shine very often in Germany and in the south there is too little wind to justify the cost of building wind turbines. You’d have to harness and store this energy in the north, then distribute it throughout the country which would require the construction of an entirely new grid, nearly doubling the amount of power-lines criss-crossing the German landscape.

Even the Germans know the expression, “Not in my backyard,” and it doesn’t just apply to nuclear power plants. People also get out and protest when they want to construct new power-lines, wind turbines or solar panels, simply because it spoils the scenery. Try to explain to them that it’s a choice between a less picturesque landscape and green energy or wire-free fields and nuclear energy and they’d probably choose the green energy, just as long as you build those pylons somewhere else.

Incidentally, Germans are already paying more for energy due to the politics of renewables. It costs more to distribute energy from windmills and solar panels through the grid, but they distribute 100% of this energy in order to boost the overall percentage of how much of Germany’s energy usage comes from clean sources. Rather than keep the nuclear reactors running at the same level all the time and bringing wind and solar into the mix only at times of peak usage, they have to keep adjusting the output of the nuclear reactors depending on how much energy is coming from wind and sunlight at any given time, which drives prices up and is worse for the long-term lifetimes of the reactors.

3- If the government doesn’t force the energy industry to invest in more research and development of green energy, what financial incentive would they have to do so? If they’re making such huge profits from nuclear plants, why bother trying to switch to renewables in the first place? If the government doesn’t extend the lifetimes of these nuclear plants, the protesters argue, it will force the industry to move toward green technology.

I thought this was the strongest point in favor of cutting short the lifetimes of the nuclear plants, but it may actually be the weakest.

First and foremost, doing this would actually have the opposite effect of what the anti-nuclear protesters want. The deal between the energy industry and the German government was that they’d put a large percentage of the profit they make from the nuclear plants into a government fund to research and develop green energy technology in exchange for extending the lifetimes of these plants. If the lifetime extensions get tossed out the window, so will this green technology fund.

The natural follow up question would then be to say that there might be no government fund, but wouldn’t it force the industry to do more development of green technologies on its own, seeing as how its energy-generating options would then be limited to the kinds of energy the people demand?

And in an ideal world, that would be the case. If there could be some sort of grand worldwide consensus among the people that they would be willing to pay more for energy, use less of it, and distribute it as equally as possible in one giant global power-distribution grid, then we could shut down every last nuclear reactor on the planet (as well as coal and gas-fired plants while we’re at it) and simply force our energy-generating corporations to give us the kinds of energy we want.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where different countries have different attitudes towards different types of energy, and where corporations can simply go wherever the profit is. E.ON itself considered taking its business out of Germany a couple of decades ago when they saw which way the political winds were blowing, but they stayed and now regret their decision.

If the German government told E.ON and the other major energy companies that they could no longer produce energy in Germany through anything but clean and renewable technology, it would be financial suicide for these businesses to remain here and they would either declare bankruptcy or move elsewhere. The only financial incentive you could give them to stay would be massive taxpayer-funded subsidies to offset the greatly increased cost of making this switch. And how many German citizens would really be willing to not only pay more taxes but much more for energy if it really came down to it?

It would be wonderful if every German would say, “Yes, absolutely. I don’t care about the cost—I’m willing to take a financial hit for the sake of the environment”. They would be a bright shining example to the world of a country truly willing to put its money where its mouth is and make sacrifices for the sake of the long-term health of the planet.

But it’s far more likely that they’d say, “France is using nuclear energy. So is the United States and China and many other countries around the world. Why should I have to pay more for my energy when these other countries aren’t willing to do the same?”

So I say put it to the people. Have a referendum. Really educate the citizenry about this issue so that everyone is familiar with the arguments on both sides, and then let them vote. If the German people want to get rid of nuclear energy and they are really willing to deal with the consequences of that decision, then by all means let’s get rid of it. I would be very happy if that were the case. But don’t say we should just abolish it and expect that a shift to a completely green-energy grid will just magically take place without angering a lot of ordinary people in the process.

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