The Dirty Bridge to a Green Future How Quickly Can Germany Abandon Nuclear Energy?

The new national energy plan unveiled by the German government last autumn is already obsolete in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Berlin now faces the challenge of devising a new mix of fossil and renewable energy sources to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But how quickly can Germany dispense with nuclear power and what will the phase-out really cost?

DPA

By , and Christian Schwägerl


Neckarwestheim, 43 kilometers (27 miles) north of Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, has a lot planned this year. The town of 3,500 people wants to build a new cultural center, install two traffic islands, break ground on a new 11-hectare (24-acre) development zone and beautify the square in front of its church. Neckarwestheim isn't exactly short on funds -- at least it hasn't been until now.

Since 1976, when a nearby nuclear power plant went into operation, Mayor Mario Dürr and his predecessors have come to expect a handsome sum of money flowing into the town's coffers almost every year. The tax revenues have transformed the provincial village into a dapper town, complete with gourmet restaurants and a new 18-hole golf course.

But since Chancellor Angela Merkel's sudden the sudden change of heart on nuclear energy -- and the decision it prompted by electric utility EnBW to shut down one of the plant's two reactors last week -- the mayor has been forced to rethink his spending plans. Dürr now expects Neckarwestheim to lose 250 jobs and to see its local business tax revenues shrink from €7 million ($9.9 million) to €3 million in only one year.

He insists that development plans are not in danger, because the town has sufficient reserves. "Things will get a little tighter, but we can still get by without EnBW," the mayor says defiantly.

A town in Germany's Swabia region is reluctantly bidding farewell to nuclear power, and the rest of the country could soon follow. Seven of Germany's oldest nuclear plants have been shut down and are now unlikely to be placed back online, while the remaining 10 are expected to become redundant. Just how quickly this occurs is a question that politicians and electric utilities will have to resolve in negotiations over the next three months. One thing is clear, however: The energy source that, until recently, seemed so clean, safe and inexpensive is suddenly being viewed as highly dispensable.

The shift in Germany's energy policy that was triggered by the catastrophe in Japan couldn't have been more abrupt. The about-face has rendered obsolete the new energy plan the chancellor unveiled last fall and boldly touted as a revolution. Now that the government needs a new mix of fossil and renewable sources of energy, the consequences will be revolutionary. The energy industry needs a new business model, the government is revising its energy supply strategy and consumers will have to get used to the idea that none of this will be free.

Phasing Out Plants While Keeping the Lights On

How the sea change will affect companies, politicians and people depends mainly on how quickly the nuclear phase-out moves forward. Until now, nuclear power has constituted about 22 percent of the electricity mix. Now everything revolves around the question of how to devise a time frame for shutting down nuclear plants while keeping the lights on.

The utilities are able to handle the immediate shutdown of the seven older reactors relatively well, although the situation could become exacerbated in the next few days when an eighth nuclear power plant, located in the town of Grafenrheinfeld between Frankfurt and Nuremburg, is also shut down. Last year inspectors noticed abnormalities in the central cooling pipe in the heart of the plant in Bavaria, which is operated by E.on. The utility company now plans to replace the pipe in the context of costly repairs to the plant that will take several weeks to complete.

The remaining natural gas, coal-fired and nuclear power plants are still producing enough energy to make up for the roughly 8,000 megawatts Grafenrheinfeld and the other seven plants would normally provide. But what happens with the remaining nine nuclear plants, which currently supply Germany with about 13,500 megawatts of electricity? How quickly can the country plug the gap in the system if it dispenses with these plants? And, more importantly, what will it replace them with?

There are already growing calls for a comeback of natural gas and, in particular, coal, notwithstanding the myriad environmental concerns. Michael Vassiliadis, head of the Mining, Chemical and Energy Industrial Union (IG BCE), says Germany needs to engage in "a new social debate" over coal's contribution to the energy mix. A coal renaissance would, of course, invalidate Germany's stated long-term goal of reducing the earth's temperature by 2 degrees Celsius compared with the pre-industrial age.

A Choice Between Two Evils

The government faces a tough decision over which goal should come first: reducing CO2 emissions or avoiding the hazards of radiation -- a choice between one of two necessary evils.

The environmentalists at Greenpeace, who have come up with their own calculations on how Germany could survive without nuclear power, are experiencing the same dilemma. In that energy scenario, which they call "Plan B," it would take six to seven years before Germany is ready for a complete phase-out. Even that, says expert Andree Böhling, would involve making some changes.

Germany would have to take a much bigger step toward expanding renewable energy, especially wind power. In addition, energy consumers, particularly industry, would have to improve efficiency even further. Currently about three dozen companies, such as aluminum and steel mills consume almost one-quarter of all electricity produced in Germany.

Finally, Böhling's calculations show that the utility industry would have to build roughly 10 large gas and steam turbine plants. Thanks to new discoveries and drilling technologies, gas is now available in abundance worldwide. The notion that nuclear power would lead mankind into the future was always a fairy tale, says Böhling. "Natural gas," the Greenpeace expert insists, "is a bridge we can rely on."

According to Böhling, this bridge would become passable even more quickly, namely within three to four years, if the utilities would increase capacity utilization at their coal-fired power plants, at least for a transitional period. Even environmentalist Böhling says he could accept this as a temporary solution.

Could it really be that easy? Can Germany achieve a complete nuclear phase-out by the middle of the decade by saving a little electricity, building a few more wind turbines and about a dozen gas power plants, and keeping coal-fired plants up and running for a while longer? The truth is that it won't happen as quickly as some predict -- or as easily and cheaply, either.

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