Phasing Out the Phase-Out The Inexorable Comeback of Nuclear Energy


Part 2: But What About the Waste?

Asia too sees nuclear power as the wave of the future. India, which currently has 17 reactors, is planning to dramatically increase that number. And China wants to up the number of its nuclear facilities from 11 currently to around 40. The International Energy Agency last year came out with a plan to confront climbing energy prices that, on the one hand calls for massive investment in renewable energies but, on the other, suggested that the world might need up to 1,300 new nuclear reactors by 2050.

Even environmentalists have not been immune to the trend. When forced to choose between the dangers presented by nuclear accidents and waste on the one hand, and CO2 emissions on the other, more and more of them are opting for the former. James Lovelock, the guru of the UK environmental movement, said in 2004 that "only nuclear power can now halt global warming." Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore joined his camp in 2006 with an impassioned plea for atomic energy in the Washington Post. Al Gore likewise sees nuclear energy as having a role to play in combating global warming.

But in Germany, the issue of nuclear power remains one fraught with public fear and political pitfalls. Indeed, even as the issue has been heating up in recent months, few are willing to risk their political careers by calling for the construction of new reactors. Most, so far, are merely calling for the lifespans of those reactors still up and running to be extended.

No Longer Taboo

"Atomic energy can only then be taken up as a political issue if it is clear that it is only a temporary technology we can use to bridge the gap until renewable energies can take over, help reduce energy prices and limit our dependence on foreign energy sources," senior Christian Democrat Friedbert Pflüger told SPIEGEL ONLINE this week.

Still, as cautious as most politicians in Berlin are being, others have begun to go further. German Research Minister Annette Schavan said recently in the mass-circulation daily Bild that, while today the construction of new reactors is not on the table, "who can say if it will be the same in 10 years?" CDU politician Kurt Lauk also recently said that the construction of new reactors should no longer be a taboo idea.

The Social Democrats are treading more lightly. In this week's SPIEGEL, Erhard Eppler, a long-time SPD veteran and intellectual figurehead, said he could imagine extending the lives of nuclear reactors in Germany -- if atomic energy's eventual phase-out becomes anchored in the constitution. Others in the party have likewise thought out-loud about sticking with nuclear power a bit longer than the currently mandated 2021 shutdown date. Few, though, are willing to seriously consider changing the party's fundamental opposition to nuclear power.

But even as the two parties seem to be taking different routes on the issue, neither seems willing to turn atomic energy into a major campaign issue ahead of the general elections scheduled for autumn 2009. Public opinion in Germany is, to be sure, changing on the issue. Whereas just a few years ago, an overwhelming majority of German voters were opposed to nuclear energy, a recent poll carried out by the public television station ARD found that just 51 percent are in favor of phasing out nuclear energy with 44 percent opposed. "Public opinion against atomic energy used to be stable," Manfred Güllner, head of the survey group Forsa, told SPIEGEL ONLINE this week. "But that consensus is currently breaking apart."

Deeply Rooted Opposition

Betting an entire campaign on the issue, though, remains risky for the moment. All it would take would be a minor accident of the kind that occurred in France this week and public opinion would likely swing back away from the atom. Plus, opposition to nuclear energy has a long and deeply rooted history in Germany.

The movement began even before the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 sent a radioactive cloud across much of northern Europe and around the world. More than a decade earlier, authorities planned to build an atomic reactor in a tiny village called Wyhl in south-western Germany. For months in 1975, opponents occupied the building site and fought back police efforts to clear them out. Eventually, the project was cancelled. It was a huge victory for German leftists and vital in handing the country's political left -- at loose ends after the 1968 generation degenerated into the violence of the Baader-Meinhof gang -- a new issue.

Soon, anti-atomic groups began springing up on university campuses across the country and leftist activists dove into the minutiae of redundant emergency cooling systems and gamma radiation. Before long, the newly-formed movement had its first real test of its mettle. The construction of the atomic facility in Brokdorf began in November 1976 and the radical left mobilized against it. Thousands marched against the site and sought to occupy it as had proven successful in Wyhl. This time, the authorities were ready, and in February 1977, images of pitched battles between protesters and police flickered across television screens up and down the country.

The battle, eventually, was lost, although construction of the Brokdorf plant was delayed for four years. But it was the beginning of a war that flared up each time a new nuclear power or waste facility was opened up in the ensuing decades. And, it was a war whose foot soldiers ultimately came from a broad swath of German society, running the political gamut from right to left. The Green Party, though, proved the primary beneficiary, with the anti-atomic movement since having found a secure place in the party's founding myth. The Greens were also Schröder's coalition partners when Berlin made atomic energy phase-out official German policy in 2000.

Death after One Minute

Eight years later, even as many are calling for the phase-out decision to be revisited, the reasons for Germany's mistrust of nuclear energy have not changed. The shock of the Chernobyl meltdown remains deep, and periodic nuclear mishaps in Europe -- such as the 2007 emergency shutdowns of reactors in Krümmel and Brunsbüttel in Germany -- serve to regularly remind Germans of the dangers.

Plus, one of the enduring challenges of nuclear power remains to be solved: what to do with the highly radioactive waste produced by atomic reactors? In the last 50 years of nuclear power generation, some 300,000 tons of the stuff has been produced, with an additional 10,000 tons coming each year. A part of that waste is plutonium, and it is incredibly volatile. Just a single gram contains as much energy as a ton of oil -- and it can give hundreds of people cancer should it be inhaled as radioactive dust. Should one stand next to a gram of plutonium for just a single minute, death is the result.

Not only that, but radioactive waste stays deadly for hundreds of thousands of years, meaning any terminal storage site has to be incredibly large, incredibly stable and incredibly isolated. Such a site has yet to be identified. In Germany, decades of testing have made little progress, and Gorleben -- a potential waste disposal area in northern Germany and repeatedly the focus of at-times violent demonstrations in the 1970s and '80s -- is as controversial as ever.

Elsewhere in the world, the situation is not much better, with tens of thousands of highly poisonous atomic garbage sitting around in temporary storage sites next to reactors across the globe. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 50 countries store waste in temporary facilities, many of them hopelessly inadequate. It is a ticking time bomb from both a health and security standpoint.

With energy prices rapidly approaching the unaffordable, however, concerns about waste storage may once again take a back seat. There are handsome profits to be made from nuclear energy, especially when oil and gas, but also coal, are becoming more expensive. And in Germany, with its older reactors that have long since paid for themselves, the black numbers are truly impressive. The reactors at Biblis, for example, make a pre-tax profit of €1 million -- every single day.

And this time around, with the spector of global warming looming large, the anti-nuclear movement promises to be decidedly less militant. David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, Inc. in New Jersey, has recently begun planning to build new nuclear reactors in Texas. By touting nuclear power as a key weapon in the battle against global warming, Crane makes for a fitting spokesman for the new nuclear power renaissance. He recently told SPIEGEL ONLINE that "the overriding concern in this country, just like in Europe, is global warming. The recognition by most pragmatic people is that nuclear is the only advanced technology that exists to replace coal-fired power plants on a significant scale."

When it comes to waste, Crane thinks the issue is overblown. "Global warming," he says, "is an immediate issue that nuclear energy can help solve. We should solve this issue now and solve the nuclear waste issue over the next 200 years."


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