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.
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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.

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.


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