The German Energy Dilemma

When taking the train across Germany, one is bound to see rustic little towns, endless fields, small brooks and beautiful bridges… and hundreds of wind turbines and rooftops covered with solar panels. The view says a lot about the German love for renewable energy, and the enthusiasm with which the country wishes to preserve its natural heritage for the younger generations is truly enviable. Therefore it is quite mindboggling that Germany still insists on using coal as one of its main energy sources, as nuclear power is being demonized as a backfiring weapon that could potentially destroy the whole nation.

It’s true there is always a risk involved with nuclear power and thus the German nightmares of a nuclear disaster aren’t quite irrational. However, we already have years of experience on nuclear power and the security measures that are required; with Germany’s mad obsession with regulations it is difficult to imagine a country that could manage the delicacy of nuclear power better than Germany.

Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear energy contradicts the country’s green policy. After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, the Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel threatened to permanently shut the remaining power plants while simultaneously cutting the country’s CO2 emissions by 40%. All of this is to be done by 2022 and it seems very unlikely Merkel will succeed in her goal due to CO2 emissions caused by the country’s dependence on coal that has replaced the nuclear power plants. Nuclear power, as compared to coal, creates much more energy while leaving little, yet long-lasting, impact on the environment. The CO2 emissions caused by nuclear energy: nil.

That is not to say nuclear power doesn’t create some unwanted by-product: the radioactive waste has been the cause of some headache to Germans in the past as no state wishes to participate by storing of them. However, most of the Germans aren’t too enthusiastic about living next to a lignite plant either, although whether or not one is to be build in your neighbourhood is usually only considered a stroke of bad luck. A nuclear plant, on the other hand, is something that can still be protested, as there are numerous places in Germany where one could be built.

The difference between radioactive waste and the waste caused by coal plants differs in the way that nuclear waste can still be stored until a satisfying solution can be found. Nuclear energy will only be used to support the renewable energy sources until they can supply enough energy on their own. The emissions caused by coal plants, however, evaporate directly into the atmosphere and the negative effects are immediate and irreversible.

Then to add more fuel in the fire, France has been struggling to loosen its grasp on nuclear power to the horror of Germany’s nuclear-phobic people. Although Germany might succeed in its attempt to dispose of its power plants, the plants in France would still present themselves as a risk for the German population. This raises the question of why Germany, who is already being exposed to the risks, should not try profit as well. Instead of emitting gases that will probably cause irreparable damage to the atmosphere, Germany refuses to take the risk despite the probability of a disaster being diminishingly small.

During the last few years the number of “Atomkraft – Nein Danke!” –stickers have considerably decreased in the German cityscape. Perhaps the discussion on Germany’s energy policy is being considered officially closed, at least until the end of Merkel’s reign. But if Germany wished to continue on this course, it may have to give up its reputation as one of the most advanced countries when it comes to maintaining a green economy or, alternatively, consider an energy import to compensate for the otherwise impending power shortage. It’s high time to reopen discussion of nuclear energy.

Further Reading/Listening:

BBC: German coal industry underpins renewable push

The Guardian: Brown coal wins a reprieve in Germany’s transition to a green future

BBC Radio: Atomic States (Part 2)

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9 thoughts on “The German Energy Dilemma

  1. The Japanese, perhaps the only nation that surpasses Germany in its love of regulations, has failed miserably at Fukushima, on many levels. A regulated lifestyle is obviously not a guarantee there. The production of nuclear energy is, indeed, CO2 free. The production of nuclear fuel though is highly energy-intensive and enormously polluting chemically. The quest for safe long-term storage of nuclear waste is decades-long and there is no decisive solution in sight. Nuclear vs coal is a complicated issue, with no clear-cut way of comparing things.

    1. You’re probably right. The nuclear power was heavily marketed which eventually led to countries buying plant models that may not have been the most stable option. Although I claim to be no expert on power plant architecture I believe this may have happened in Japan.
      What comes to waste I think the amount of it is not out proportion. But you may be better informed on the matter than I am.

      1. As far as I understand what happened in Japan was that the company (and the government) were overconfident in the capacities of their safety measures. After the accident, they tried to conceal its extent and pretended their crisis management was much better than it really was. This has damaged the trust of the Japanese in nuclear energy beyond repair.

        On the whole, the nuclear energy business has a poor safety and credibility record, both privately and government owned. Other energy sectors are maybe equally poorly performing. Given the dangers involved in nuclear energy, I think it is wise to put the development of the nuclear option on hold at least until we find a decent way to handle the nuclear waste.

      2. We definitely need to learn from our earlier mistakes. But I still believe nuclear power can be made into a safe option. I’m not sure whether we are there yet but I think it might be more easily done than trying to make lignite harmless for the environment. Of course, I could be wrong.

      3. Of course it can be made safe. Question is – how much will it cost and what are the odds we will make it safe fast enough, before we make unrepairable damage. That is – how many more Chernobyls and Fukushimas are we prepared to endure, and does it outweigh lignite damages.

        Personally, I think we need neither. I am convinced that with full use of energy conservation technologies and with the resources now used to research nuclear and fossil technologies redirected to renewable energy sources, we can be high and dry in a single decade. I am rather pessimistic about the chances of this happening though.

  2. Despite the advantages of nuclear power you stressed out in your post, I wouldn’t want to live near such a power plant. Coal is not better. So what is wrong with Solar energy, then?

    1. Nothing as far as I’m concerned. It simply doesn’t provide enough energy on it’s own or there are difficulties in storing it (depending on which country we are talking about). It’s also fairly expensive replacing the panels on regular intervals although I believe the technology has improved immensely in the last few years. I wish the renewable energy sources were more practical but I guess we will get to that stage eventually.

      1. For private consumers in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, solar panel systems are paying themselves back in 7-8 years. Since they last for 25-30 years, that’s 3-4 times benefit – quite a feat, I would say. Wind turbines have an even better return-on-investment time of 3-4 years. Renewables are damn practical, I would say.

        When comparing them to gas, oil and coal, one only needs to count in the cost of climate damage, asthma, bronchitis and noise pollution into the costs of fossil fuels and the choice for wind, sun and hydro energy is infinitely more profitable.

        Energy storage is a relatively minor problem compared to the inherent problems in the use of fossil or nuclear energy. There is a wealth of possible storage solutions that can be applied. Examples are water buffers or using the electric cars as batteries. The exact solution will depend on which country we are talking about, but renewable solutions have been around since at least the late 80’s, pretty much for each and every scenario imaginable.

        Nuclear energy is an option. So is coal. Which one is better? I think both are bad, in view of the clean, reliable, safe alternatives that are available.

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