The nuclear problems in Japan caused by the earthquake and tsunami are creating their own tsunami in Europe by raising anew the long simmering debate over the future of nuclear power in the EU. While the Germans and the French see eye to eye on many things having to do with how the EU should be run, nuclear energy is not one of them.
In a March 15-16, 2011 survey sponsored by EDF after the Japan earthquake of March 11th, 55 percent of French surveyed said they opposed shutting down nuclear power plants in France while 42 percent were in favor. The French, of course, get more than 70% of their electric energy from nuclear power and Électricité de France (EDF) is a giant of the industry operating plants around the world as is Areva the nuclear power plant builder-operator. Insulting nuclear energy in France is like trashing its wine.
But Germany has had a phobia over nuclear power for many years since Chernobyl despite getting about 23% of its electricity from nuclear sources. The long time German plan has been to “grow out” of its dependence on nuclear energy by growing into its potential for renewables. Germany has used its feed-in-tariff (FiT), a 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour tax on all electricity sold to customers to finance its subsidies for renewables. The German goal is to increase the share of electricity produced from renewable sources from 17% today to 40% by 2020.
Nervousness over the risks of relying on imported Russian natural gas has kept gas fired power generation to about 13%. But the skunk at the German energy party is its continued dependence upon coal for more than 40% of energy produced. This large share of coal fired power generation stands in the way of achieving its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and makes the strategy of shutting down German’s nuclear power plants more risky.
Nonetheless, the German reaction to the Fukushima Dai-ichi tragedy was to shut down 7 of 17 reactors for three months for safety inspections and further risk analysis while the German government tests public reaction to the costs and risks of speeding up the shut-down of the nuclear portfolio. Of course, all of this is happening in the midst of elections in Germany so the parties are testing the public tolerance for rising energy costs on top of all the other economic uncertainties.
Shuttering German’s nuclear power plants will not be cheap. The government estimates it will cost more than euro150 billion or US$210 billion to replace the nukes in addition to the estimated euro75 billion ($107 billion) by 2030 to build large scale offshore wind farms. But this pits Germany’s fast growing solar energy industry now around 17 GW, with 7 GW added in 2010 against the offshore wind farms with a capacity of 25.7 GW today and another 25 GW of off-shore potential expected by 2020 for a share of the FiT subsidies that produced euro8.2 billion (US$11.7 billion) in 2010 and a forecasted euro13.5 billion (US$19.2 billion) for 2011. But these subsidies have also been a drag on the budget deficit and subject to rapid policy changes as we have already seen in Germany and Spain before it.
But there are 143 other problems for the Germans. Even if they succeed in retiring all 17 of their nuclear power plants there are still 143 other nuclear power plants across Europe that are not going away anytime soon. German politicians find themselves squeezed between conflicting policy goals and economic realities. They can satisfy the anti-nuke crowd at home by shutting Germany’s reactors, but it will cost utility customers and taxpayers big time to do so.
Then adding insult to the injury of higher costs, Germany will still be neighbors with nuclear power plants in France and elsewhere so the risks Germans obsess over remains the same. Chancellor Merkel’s approach to that dilemma is to push for “common EU nuclear safety standard” which the French and others interpret as a possible EU tax increase to help the Germans pay for shutting their own nukes while making it prohibitively expensive for nuclear power elsewhere. That will be a tough sale even for the persistent Germans!
What about emissions reduction? Nuclear power is a condition precedent to greenhouse gas emissions reduction. So says the International Energy Agency warning EU countries not to rush to judgment about closing their nuclear power plants in reaction to the Japan crisis. The IEA says reducing nuclear power production will inevitably lead to increasing use of coal and natural gas and rising emissions.
“Consumers must be prepared for significantly higher electricity prices in the future,” said Wolfgang Franz, head of the German government’s independent economic advisory body.
Now that will be music to the ears of German voters.
- “Berlin – Germany Set To Abandon Nuclear Power For Good” and related posts (vosizneias.com)
- Germany set to abandon nuclear power for good (cbsnews.com)
- Germany could abandon nuclear power – The Press Association (news.google.com)
- Germany weaning itself from nuclear power (cbc.ca)
- Please Don’t Take My Nukes Away! (civicchoices.wordpress.com)