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

Oil prices are sky high. Greenhouse gases are driving up temperatures around the world. And many are now looking to nuclear power as the possible solution. Dozens of new reactors are under construction, but in Germany the subject remains taboo -- for now.

Put a monkey in front of a keyboard, and he might come up with something like this: Biblis A, Neckar-Westheim 1, Brunsbüttel, Biblis B, Isar 1, Unterweser, Philippsburg 1. The names, though, are far from meaningless. All of them are nuclear power plants in Germany -- seven of the 17 still in operation in the country. And all seven of them are scheduled to be shut down between 2010 and 2012 and taken off the electricity grid.

Many around the world are beginning to see nuclear power as a possible solution to global warming. Germany might also reconsider its policy of nuclear phase-out.

Many around the world are beginning to see nuclear power as a possible solution to global warming. Germany might also reconsider its policy of nuclear phase-out.

Foto: Getty Images

The reason for the planned shut downs is clear -- they are part of the country's legislated shift away from atomic energy. But just what that means for Germany's energy supply only becomes apparent after looking at a small graphic that Stephan Kohler, chief executive of the Germany Energy Agency, keeps in a plastic folder in his office. The graphic estimates trends in both consumption and production of electricity in Germany's near future. Whereas the consumption line gently and consistently falls, the production line climbs slightly for the next couple of years -- and then it plunges. The edge of the cliff depicted in the diagram coincides with 2010, just when the 126,036 gigawatt hours of electricity produced by Biblis, Neckar-Westheim and Brunsbüttel disappear.

It is a date with energy policy destiny that has been facing Germany ever since the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, together with his coalition partners from the Green Party, passed a law in 2000 mandating that the country turn its back on nuclear power. The idea was that, in the intervening years, electricity produced with renewable energy technologies would grow to the point that the shift away from nuclear would hardly be noticed.

That, though, is looking increasingly unlikely. Despite a decade of massive investment and generous programs established to promote wind, solar and biomass power generation, green energy sources make up just 14 percent of the country's energy supply. Even if that were to double in the near future, the lion's share of Germany's energy consumption would have to come from elsewhere. Without nuclear power, "elsewhere" in Germany necessarily means coal-fired power plants. But in a world with a rapidly warming climate caused by massive emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere by, among other sources, coal-fired power plants, such a scenario is decidedly unappetizing.

Well Over 100 Reactors

Indeed, even as Germany positions itself as a world leader in the fight against global warming, a major problem is brewing right in its own back yard. How to produce enough clean energy to satisfy the country's needs? It is a conundrum that many countries around the world are facing as well. But outside of Germany, a consensus is slowly developing that nuclear energy may very well be the answer. After decades of hesitancy, more and more countries are turning back toward the atom with well over 100 reactors either already under construction or in the planning stages.

And in Berlin? Officially, nothing has changed. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition government agreed -- when patching together the so-called "grand coalition" pairing Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in 2005 -- that the subject was taboo. But with the world slowly coming to the realization that nuclear energy could provide at least an interim answer to global warming, pressure is growing. And the voices in favor of revisiting the 2000 phase-out decision are becoming louder.

"The chancellor has noticed that the discussion about the use of atomic energy has been re-energized" said Merkel spokesman Thomas Steg recently. Her party is willing to go even further. "For the foreseeable future," party leadership recently wrote in a policy paper on global warming, "the contribution of nuclear energy to the production of electricity in Germany is irreplaceable."

May Soon Become a Reality

It is a conclusion that many in the world have already reached. Oil and gas prices are skyrocketing with a barrel of crude now costing $140 and gas prices climbing just as quickly. Even as speculation is partially to blame for the rising prices, demand in developing countries around the world, especially in China and India, is putting even more pressure on an oil industry that was already having difficulty meeting demand. Experts see no end in sight to the price spike, with some estimating that $250 per barrel may soon become a reality.

At the same time, though, global warming is emerging as the single greatest challenge facing mankind this century. Already, the European Union has taken decisive steps toward lowering its greenhouse gas emissions, with a particular emphasis on cutting the amount of CO2 that gets released into the atmosphere. But the rest of the world has yet to follow suit. Indeed, even as the realization is growing that coal-fired power plants are a major contributor to global warming, coal these days is coming to be seen as a cheaper alternative to oil and gas. Russia is planning to build some 30 new coal-fired plants by 2011. In China, a new coal-fired facility goes on line about once every 10 days.

Still, it is nuclear power that many are beginning to see as the planet's saviour. A typical coal-fired power plant (burning lignite) emits up to 1,150 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity produced. The most modern gas-driven facilities emit 400 grams for the same amount of electricity. And for nuclear power plants? That number is around 30 grams per kilowatt hour when the entire life-cycle of the plant is taken into account.

'Litmus Test for Climate Change'

It is this math that is leading to the biggest nuclear power boom the world has seen in decades. After a 30 year gap with not a single new reactor being connected to the US power grid, four projects are now under review with up to 30 more in the planning stages. Bush's Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman recently demanded even more. "We don't need 30 of these additional units, we need 130 or 230," he said. John McCain, the Republican candidate for the White House, has likewise suggested that the US alone should build over 100 new nuclear power facilities. And at the G-8 earlier this week, James Connaughton, Bush's senior advisor on the environment -- and a former lobbyist for major electrical utilities and the mining and chemical industries -- suggested that a country's attitude toward nuclear power should be seen as a "litmus test for seriousness on climate change."

The US is far from alone. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, like many in his country, long a proponent of nuclear power, called atomic power "more than ever an industry of the future" last week while announcing the construction of yet another nuclear reactor -- his country's 61st. In Great Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown would like to see 40 percent of the UK's energy coming from nuclear power -- requiring the construction of 20 new reactors. Switzerland is planning three new reactors. A number of countries in Eastern Europe want more atomic power. Russia is considering up to 35 new reactors.

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."