Nuclear power is being phased out globally. This is an ecological disaster. In 1993, 17 per cent of global electricity was generated by nuclear power. Today it is just 11 per cent, despite becoming safer and more efficient.
Germany is the latest to turn against nuclear energy. In 2011, Germany decided to shut down all nuclear reactors within 11 years, sooner than their expected lifespans. In 2010, nuclear power provided 22.5 per cent of Germany’s electricity. Seven years later, it provided just 11.5 per cent. Nuclear and fossil fuels were to be replaced by wind and solar power, as part of the Energiewende, or ‘energy transition’. Wind and solar has roughly doubled to 25 per cent of total electrical generation. However, the electricity industry is emitting just as much carbon dioxide. Why is this?
Wind and solar generate varying amounts of power. Solar generation peaks at midday while demand peaks in the evening. Wind production is weather-dependent. There is currently no large-scale, economically and environmentally viable electricity storage option. With nuclear plants being shut down, Germany has been forced to fill in the increasingly severe dips in renewable generation with high-carbon brown coal. For comparison, Germans now pay 44 per cent more than the French for their energy, they have worse air quality, higher rates of pollution-related death and their electricity is, according to a study by Environmental Progress, “nearly ten times [more carbon-intensive] than France’s.” While Germany is needlessly destroying its low-carbon nuclear capacity, France produces 72 per cent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy is cheaper, healthier and more climate-friendly. Why is the dominant narrative that wind and solar are the answers to climate change and that Germany is a shining example to be followed?
One piece of the puzzle is fossil fuel industry propaganda. In his recent piece in Forbes, the ecologist Michael Shellenberger describes how oil and gas companies finance anti-nuclear environmental groups and have embarked on a billion dollar advertising and lobbying effort to promote wind and solar energy. Why is the fossil fuel industry backing wind and solar and anti-nuclear groups? Wind and solar-heavy grids require fossil-fuels in order to smooth out the supply of energy. Nuclear power, with its consistent power output, renders fossil fuels redundant. Environmental Progress found that, had the money spent on the wind and solar Energiewende been spent on nuclear power, Germany’s electricity would already be 100 per cent fossil fuel-free.
But, even more than the propaganda efforts of the fossil fuel industry, the public prefers wind and solar energy to nuclear power because they fear nuclear disaster. Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear energy was just days after Fukushima and related anti-nuclear protests. Following the Three Mile Island incident, 51 US reactors were cancelled. Chernobyl resulted in public fear, anti-nuclear legislation, legal action, protest and soaring construction costs for nuclear reactors. The total number of reactors has stagnated since.
We need to get some perspective on the relative risks. Nuclear disasters are exceedingly rare, and increasingly unlikely given improvements in safety. Despite our obsession with the horrific spectacle of a nuclear meltdown, at 0.07 deaths/TWh, nuclear power is 467 times safer to humans than brown coal and 263 times safer than oil. If we considered the deaths associated with climate change, these disparities would grow. A coal plant even emits 100 times more radiation than a similar-sized nuclear plant.
A nuclear dominated electricity grid does not require fossil fuels; a wind and solar-based grid does for now.
That is reason enough to reconsider nuclear power as the real green option.
Image: Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons