What a difference a decade makes

Craig Morris
Craig Morris

Nuclear risk is not any greater now than it was last Friday. The lessons Germany is drawing from Japan's nuclear situation are therefore all the more interesting.

 

 

Craig Morris directs Petite Planète and writes regularly at Renewables International. He also blogs about mundane matters at Always Greener.

Japan is truly to be admired for the way its people are conducting themselves with dignity in such trying times. But what does the unfolding nuclear disaster in Fukushima tell us? Lots of people are going to say, "I told you so." But if we already knew on Friday that nuclear can be dangerous, we can't have learned it since. However, one thing seems clear to me already – Germany, which resolved to switch from nuclear to renewables a decade ago, is not reacting the way other countries are, and there is a lesson in that.

From my sofa in Freiburg, Germany, I have access to the BBC, CNN, and French television in addition to German television. The differences in opinions are obvious. The French Environmental Minister said, "There is no option to nuclear for an advanced country like France." French parliamentarians by and large still support nuclear, and some of them are saying "it couldn't happen here."

Now, look across the Rhine. On Monday, Merkel announced a moratorium on the extensions of nuclear plant commissions her coalition adopted only last year; she wants to review the safety of the plants again. Merkel plans to switch off all seven of Germany's nuclear plants constructed before 1980, though parliamentarians and German President Wulff are reviewing the legality of this about-face.

The German phase-out of nuclear power has always been extremely popular among the public. Since Chancellor Merkel extended the commissions of Germany's nuclear plants, popular opposition to her extensions has never dipped below 61 percent. On Monday, it reached a new high of 71 percent.
The German phase-out of nuclear power has always been extremely popular among the public. Since Chancellor Merkel extended the commissions of Germany's nuclear plants, popular opposition to her extensions has never dipped below 61 percent. On Monday, it reached a new high of 71 percent.

Why the rush? Merkel is under incredible pressure. Over the past decade, Germans have become used to the idea of a nuclear-free future. While the country has only gone from 19 to 17 nuclear plants over the past decade, there were no power outages due to a lack of generating capacity. Germans have experienced that renewables have been able to replace nuclear up to now.

Now switch to the BBC, where men in business suits from British institutes and universities compare Japan's nuclear disaster mainly to Three Mile Island. On German television, nuclear experts from Greenpeace are making the rounds on TV talk shows along with Michael Sailor of the Institute of Applied Ecology; they mainly compare what is going on in Japan to Chernobyl. Indeed, German media are in full attack mode – take a look this interactive map of Germany, where you can see how many people would need to be evacuated in a given area you can determine.

Sailer looks like a hippie from the 1970s. Would Americans or Brits be able to see people like Sailer on television explaining Japan's nuclear disaster without thinking he is biased? Would they feel that someone from Greenpeace has an agenda and want to hear the "other side"? Can you even imagine Sailer on CNN?

In his Sunday best, a nuclear expert from Greenpeace answers questions about nuclear safety on German television at noontime.
In his Sunday best, a nuclear expert from Greenpeace answers questions about nuclear safety on German television at noontime.

A few decades ago, conventional energy experts failed to take experts like Sailer seriously, so for the past few decades the German public got to see nuclear opponents in jeans explain the history of nuclear power policy, the specific differences between and risks stemming from various nuclear plant designs – while nuclear proponents in suits and ties simply warned, “Without nuclear, the lights will go out.” Well, the lights haven't gone out yet, and with each passing year Germany's nuclear critics seem more honest and better informed. Germans have apparently had enough “balance” about nuclear and are no longer interested in promises from suits and ties.

Sailer is now head of the German government's Nuclear Waste Commission – appointed by conservative Christian Democrat Environmental Minister Norbert Röttgen. The late Hermann Scheer, the international godfather of renewables, started off at a research institute for nuclear. By and large, Germany's most respected nuclear experts oppose nuclear – because they understand it well.

No alternative to nuclear?

Think Germany is going to be importing nuclear power from France if it shuts down its nuclear plants? You obviously haven't seen what's been going on over the past decade. A wonderful Wikipedia entry entitled "Nuclear power in France" claims that "France is also the world's largest net exporter of electric power." There is no German equivalent of that English Wikipedia page, and if there were, German hippies would have updated the site with the facts long ago. My hair is far too short for this, but here goes – a quote from the English edition of the French grid operator's annual report:

“In 2009, for the first time in 27 years, France became a net importer of electricity over an entire month - October - and had to import a physical balance of 458 GWh of electricity from its European neighbours. On 19 October 2009, the import balance hit a 30-year high of 7,711 MW. On 16 December 2009, the daily physical energy import balance reached a 30-year high of 140 GWh.”

Now take a look at that picture on page 11 of the PDF; looks to me like Germany is a net exporter of electricity to France by a very wide margin – according to official French figures. France is only marginally a net exporter of power at the moment, and the situation is worsening for the French.

When Germany decided a decade ago to shut down its nuclear plants after an average commission of 32 years (the "nuclear phase-out"), Germany had 19 nuclear plants. Four years ago, when two of them had been closed already, another two were off-line for scheduled maintenance – and an additional two for unscheduled maintenance. Germany had gone from 19 to 13 nuclear plants in only seven years, and there was no shortage of electricity – not even close, in fact.

Today, almost no German says, "I support nuclear"; instead, as one token supporter of nuclear stated on German TV yesterday, "we are simply going to need it until around 2030" – to which a prominent physicist replied, "We could shut off seven of them tomorrow and the other 10 successively by 2020." And that's now exactly what the government plans to do.

German conclusions about Japan

To anyone who cares to look, Germany demonstrates that a switch to renewables is possible. When Germany decided to replace nuclear with renewables a decade ago, it only had around two percent renewable electricity. Last year, Germany installed an additional one percent of its power supply as photovoltaics alone. The country currently gets more than a sixth of its electricity from renewables. Thanks to feed-in tariffs, the share of renewable electricity is growing by nearly 2 percentage points per year.

Want to see what it looks like? The country's power exchange has a website where you can see on an hourly basis how much power Germany consumes, and how much of it is wind/solar/conventional. You can sort through the calendar and see how much was generated in the past. The United States does not have any such transparency in its energy sector, nor does the UK. If you are living in the United States or the UK, you are living in the 20th century. Come to Germany any time, and I will show you the 21st.

In this survey conducted for the German nightly news, 70 percent of Germans say they believe that a nuclear accident as bad as the one in Japan could also happen in Germany.
In this survey conducted for the German nightly news, 70 percent of Germans say they believe that a nuclear accident as bad as the one in Japan could also happen in Germany.

When it comes to what we can learn from the Japanese nuclear disaster, I agree with conservative German Environmental Minister Röttgen, who points out that the precautions taken at nuclear plants in Japan were apparently not great enough – the plants may have been insufficiently protected against tsunamis, and they were designed to withstand earthquakes up to a magnitude of 8.2, whereas they got magnitude 9. As USA Today put it, "the worst-case scenario wasn't bad enough." And as Röttgen points out, Japan is an incredibly advanced country, at least as advanced as Germany, with an even larger economy. In making nuclear safe, the Japanese did everything right. If it can happen there, it can happen here – that’s what German conservatives say they have learned over the weekend.

So here’s to Japan for showing us how to work together without panicking during a crisis. And here’s to Germany for showing us that renewables are a real option to nuclear.

Craig Morris directs Petite Planète and writes regularly at Renewables International. He also blogs about mundane matters at Always Greener.