Fight Club Weighing the Risks of Nuclear Power

SPIEGEL speaks to German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Utz Claassen, CEO of Germany's third-largest energy provider EnBW, about whether nuclear energy can provide a way out of the climate crisis.

Editor's Note: SPIEGEL ran the following interview in a special issue on new energies published earlier this year. In light of the current debate in Germany over the future of nuclear energy, the editors of SPIEGEL INTERNATIONAL have chosen to publish an English translation of the interview. The discussion, however, took place before the recent incidents at the Krümmel and Brunsbüttel plants in northern Germany.

Difficult choices: Does nuclear power offer the best way out of the climate catastrophe or does the answer lie in renewable energies like wind power?

Difficult choices: Does nuclear power offer the best way out of the climate catastrophe or does the answer lie in renewable energies like wind power?

SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, in light of the threat of a climate catastrophe, many argue that -- as long as fossil fuels like coal and natural gas continue to pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and renewable energies have been insufficiently developed -- we should continue to use nuclear energy. Would that not be a sensible path to follow?

Gabriel: Renewable energy sources are already an important part of Germany's energy supply today -- and their share is growing faster than forecast. In purely quantitative terms, they replace one nuclear power plant every year. Furthermore, we're not phasing out nuclear energy from one day to the next. It will continue to be used in Germany for the next 14 years; that decision has been made. The question over which opinions diverge is how to assess the risks associated with extending the lifespans of the nuclear power plants that are still online. Proponents of nuclear energy always act as if we were faced with a choice between the plague and cholera, a choice between the risks of nuclear energy and the dangers of the climate crisis. But as a politician, I don't want to choose between two diseases -- I want to find the path to good health.

Claassen: The environment minister's choice of words is inappropriate. The comparison to a "choice between the plague and cholera" is exaggerated. This attention-grabbing comparison to a disease is unfair to those who have worked in nuclear power plants for decades and, in doing so, have made a considerable contribution to climate protection. Many people have invested their entire careers, their expertise, their life's work in that area. Of course we have to balance the residual risk of an accident in the area of nuclear energy and the climate-protecting effect of atomic power.

Gabriel: The issue is not about a residual risk. That expression makes the problem seem harmless. The issue is that of the gigantic danger of damage in the case of an accident. Forsmark (the Vattenfall-owned plant in Sweden) has just shown us what sorts of things can happen with long running times. The point is that the narrowly averted accident did not occur in Ukraine or Russia, but in a technologically advanced country like Sweden.

Claassen: Nuclear energy has been employed in a safe way for decades in Germany.

Gabriel: Of course everyone who works in this industry is firmly convinced that nuclear energy can be kept under control. But we have had many serious hazardous incidents in Germany too -- despite the fact that all technicians had previously said they could not occur.

SPIEGEL: As far as the people outside the nuclear power plants are concerned, their worries about safety are what dominates the issue in their minds. Are you, Mr. Claassen, seizing on the opportunity provided by the fear of a climate crisis in order to repress the fear of a meltdown?

Claassen: Of course people's worries need to be taken seriously. One has to seriously balance the residual risk of a nuclear accident -- whatever the correct quantification of that risk -- and the problem of climate change, which threatens the existence of all of humanity.

SPIEGEL: The safety risks also include the fact that it remains completely unclear where nuclear waste, which stays radioactive for as long as a million years, should be sent for final storage.

Gabriel: Since the 1970s, 130,000 barrels of nuclear waste have been buried in a so-called experimental final storage facility in the former salt pit of Asse (in the German state of Lower Saxony), not far from where I live. When I went in there for the first time as a 17-year-old, I asked: If two of three adjacent salt pits have suffered floods, what makes you believe that no water will seep into the third salt pit, the one you're now packing nuclear waste into? We were given many lectures on why that couldn't happen. Twelve cubic meters (424 cubic feet) of water have been flowing in there every day since 1988. No one knows how that can be stopped.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Claassen, what kind of advantage does nuclear energy provide?

Claassen: In our country, nuclear energy helps prevent the emissions of 150 million tons of CO2 every year. Carbon dioxide emissions would be that much higher if, instead of nuclear power plants, coal-fired power plants with the same capacity had been built.

Utz Claassen, the CEO of Energie Baden-Württemberg (EnBW), Germany's third-largest energy provider, believes the schedule for phasing out nuclear energy set up by Germany's government in 2000 is too ambitious.

Utz Claassen, the CEO of Energie Baden-Württemberg (EnBW), Germany's third-largest energy provider, believes the schedule for phasing out nuclear energy set up by Germany's government in 2000 is too ambitious.

Gabriel: We are convinced that we can bring the dangers of climate change under control in a much better way using instruments other than the use of nuclear energy. With the share of renewable energy sources on the electricity market currently lower than 12 percent, we're already preventing (emissions of) about 100 million tons of CO2. Assuming a conservative estimate -- not an optimistic one -- it is realistic that we can achieve a situation, by 2020, in which renewable energy sources reach a share of at least 26 or 27 percent.

If we had invested even a fraction of the many billions that we have put into nuclear energy into research into renewable energy sources, then we would neither have a CO2 problem today, nor would we face the risk of radioactivity.

Claassen: It may be true that we would have made more progress in the area of renewable energy sources. But most renewable energy sources do not have the capacity to provide the base load.

SPIEGEL: "Base load" is the term for the output constantly required by the electricity grid.

Claassen: Without nuclear energy, we would have to cover the base load almost exclusively by means of fossil fuels, namely black coal and brown coal, meaning that we would have emitted more CO2 today, not less, even if it had been proven possible to develop renewable energy source technologies more quickly. A study by the German Energy Agency (DENA) -- not a study by the energy industry, that is, but one by the center of competence for energy efficiency in Germany -- came to the following conclusion: When 37,000 megawatts of wind power capacity have been installed, that will make 6 percent of those fossil fuel or nuclear plant capacities that can provide the base load obsolete. So 2,300 conventional megawatt blocks of coal or nuclear energy could then be abandoned.

SPIEGEL: That's not even 2 percent of today's electricity capacity.

Claassen: Roughly estimated, you would need about 10,000 wind turbines to reproduce one large nuclear plant. That should be clear to everyone who also bears in mind the landscape and other issues.

Gabriel: Those kinds of horrific figures are used to try to scare people. The DENA study on the electricity grid recommends developing as many as 20,000 megawatts of capacity in the form of offshore facilities -- at a distance from the coast where they can't even be seen from an island. That requires expanding the grid by 850 kilometers (528 miles) of AC power lines. It's the energy providers, by the way, who are responsible for doing so. That would provide stability for the grid and increase the capacity to provide the base load.

Claassen: When it comes to renewable energy sources, we have the capacity to produce the base load in the case of biomass and large hydroelectric facilities, but not in the case of solar power, wind power and other sources. That's why we have to raise the question of how we will cover the base load in the foreseeable future, for as long as there are no other technological options available.

Gabriel: You're reducing the use of renewable energy sources to electricity production. But the base load argument isn't even valid there. With biogas, we can produce the base load, and by expanding offshore windpower off the coast of northern Germany we of course become considerably more independent from the problems of the wind power facilities we have on the land. You're also completely ignoring the uses of bio-energies when it comes to fuels. Nuclear energy does nothing at all for us in this area. This means that if we really want to do something for climate protection, we have to consider the complete spectrum of energy resources.


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