Green In, Nuclear Out?
Why We Should Be Careful When Switching Off Atomic Energy
The 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, triggered some rather fundamental reactions across the world. Among others, the German government decided to switch off all its nuclear power stations by 2022, a 180° turn-around of Angela Merkel’s previous policies. By today, half of the reactors have been turned off, the remainder is due to follow with only slight delays. The country is pulling of what hardly anyone thought was possible. But is it the right way to go, the best way to deal with this technology? There are three reasons why it is:
First, nuclear energy is scary. Standing in front of a plant in which processes happen that we mostly cannot see, but knowing that they (can) have detrimental effects, is understandably making the spectator nervous. Although accidents are rare, they are normal — they will happen, as they have happened before. In the end, nuclear plants are humanly devised machines that rely on an entire chain of functioning mechanisms, often requiring human intervention. At some point, it is normal that something goes wrong.
The nuclear reactors in Fessenheim (France) or Thiange (Belgium), for instance, had to be temporarily turned off repeatedly because of hairline cracks in the radiation protection layer, overheating, or other — unknown — circumstances. This is a nerve wrecking risk, especially for those living in the metropolitan areas close by (2 million inhabitants in the Rhine valley around Basel and Freiburg, over 10 million in the Rhine-Ruhr area). Similar to the ‘flood of the century’ or ‘summer of the century’ narrative, they are happening more often than they statistically ought to. The only solution is to switch them off.
Alternative energy resources like wind, solar, or water are increasingly an option across the world, having emerged as widely diffused technologies at affordable prices to be installed large scale (feeding into a grid). The recent addition of the Arkona wind farm in the Baltic Sea off the German coast is just an example.
Second, there are long-term challenges — financial, environmental, and also biological — that we do not yet know how to deal with. How do we handle the highly toxic nuclear plants once they are shut down, or the radioactive waste produced by them? So far we store waste underground in seemingly safe old mines. However, this is not a viable solution, as recent discoveries in Asse (Germany) prove, where groundwater has entered the storage facility, causing rust, and eventually a leakage of dangerously radioactive material. This problem cannot be solved in a few years either — the half-life period of radioactive plutonium, the waste product of atomic energy plants, is 24,100 years!
Third, there is an economic argument to be made about renewables, as they are not only sustainable (hence, more economic in the long-term), but as they also stimulate the economy. The potential for employment in the renewable energy sector is exponentially larger than in the nuclear sector. It could even cater for employees of the coal sector who will be on the labour market after their plants have ceased operations — a double-win.
Related, the renewable energy sector offers immense potential for innovation, including knock-on effects in other industries. Germany, for example, recently opened its first solar bicycle path that can also melt ice in winter and depict road signs. Researchers use wind farms to observe dynamics of the ocean. Water dams are also used to control water flows of rivers to maintain a steady supply for agricultural use — a massive win in times of droughts and ever warmer (‘once in a century’) summers.
However, strategies of dealing with nuclear power vary significantly across countries. While the Germans phase-out nuclear, France produces more than 75% of its electricity through nuclear power and is ramping up its nuclear potential by building new facilities, similar to the Baltics, Brazil, China, India, Russia, South Korea, the US, and the United Arab Emirates. There are good arguments for doing so, too:
First, nuclear power, in the grand scheme of things and as opposed to popular perception, is a safe technology. Taking into account the amount of energy produced per plant, the amount of people benefitting from it, the number of plants around the world, and the total number of accidents, should reveal that the technology is far less dangerous than often assumed. Why, then does it seem otherwise? Simply because IF an accident occurs, the consequences are catastrophic, as Harrisburg, Chernobyl and Fukushima have proven.
Such events make it hard to believe in statistics, even if it is irrational — compare this with the fear of flying, which might also be an irrational, but nonetheless legitimate fear. Is also has to do with the fact that governments are hardly equipped to deal with catastrophic scenarios, as every single one of the accidents has shown. Handing out iodine pills will hardly calm the moods of worried citizens.
Second, nuclear power cannot be adequately replaced yet. Germany is turning towards coal to capture the electricity deficit resulting from the nuclear shut-downs — a solution that is hardly in line with the Paris Agreement, and in fact the reason why per capita carbon emissions in Germany have not declined significantly despite a stark increase of renewables in the energy mix. By emission standards, nuclear power is clean, not emitting anything other than water vapour!
Third, and arguably most importantly, one needs to ask whether switching off nuclear plants should be the priority for governments across the world, when issues relating to a stable energy supply and to energy access are not yet fully resolved. This is a matter of inequality and justice. In many regions of the world, nuclear power enables even the poorest members of society to benefit from reasonably cheap electricity prices — economies of scale makes it possible. Is switching them off, hence, just? Or are those who can afford it not merely catering for their fear at the expense of the socio-economically less fortunate?
Similarly, smaller countries that rely on energy from larger neighbours are intrigued by their own nuclear endeavours. The Baltics, for example, try to emancipate themselves from Russia, as a nuclear plant is planned in Lithuania. Energy independence is a strong factor in geopolitics, especially if countries do not have the resources or space to build thousands of solar panels or wind turbines.
After all, there are arguments on both sides of this debate. One aspect is certain, however: The guiding rationale for governments of out time should be the Paris Agreement, limiting global warming to less than 2°C. Nuclear power can help to achieve this target, but we need other renewables in the long-term. There is no good reason why other rationales should be the guiding principle for policymakers. We cannot trade-off imminently perceived safety vs long-term sustainability (and therefore, also safety), as that would be unjust for future generations.
The verdict, hence, is clear: There are good reasons to phase out nuclear power plants sooner rather than later. Switching them off hastily just like that would not be just, however. There are good arguments for doing so in the future. We should, therefore, no longer invest in new atomic facilities, but instead into alternatives, and should take nuclear off the grid when we have reasonable, feasible, adequate, and green replacements established that are financially viable, equitable, and just.
Andreas is a PhD candidate at the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Public Policy at University College London (UCL). His research is on innovation policy and the coordinating role of government regarding emerging technologies, among others regarding renewable energy technologies. He has conducted research on solar panels for a project at the University of Oxford and regularly tweets about his work - follow him @AndyPKopp. This post is part of a project on 'Responsible Science and Innovation' at UCL.