May 9, 2011

Nuclear Power Better than Alternatives?

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute insist that the real alternative to nuclear power is not renewables but fossil fuels, and write caustically that most environmentalists are their own worst enemy:
Fukushima showed that, for most environmentalists, nuclear’s low-probability risks trump both the existential threat of climate change and 2m deaths annually from air pollution. Green campaigners have, ironically, fallen prey to the same misperception of risk they all too often see in a public indifferent to global warming: an obsession with dramatic but infrequent threats, while ignoring those that are banal but far more deadly. 
Many greens dismiss this criticism by claiming that the choice between nuclear and fossil fuels is false. But in this, environmental hysteria about nuclear power is matched by green delusions about renewable energy. Since at least the 1970s, greens have argued that wind and solar, when combined with energy efficiency, could meet our energy needs without resort to nuclear power or fossil fuels. Faith in what is called the “soft energy path” has taken on an almost religious quality among green activists. Yet, despite decades of subsidies, solar and wind still make up a tiny percentage of energy virtually everywhere in the world. 
Anyone who thinks turning away from nuclear will lead to more renewables need only look at what has happened in Germany. After Fukushima, it shut down seven of its 17 nuclear plants. The result has been that emissions have risen as much as 10 per cent, according to Reuters, partly due to electricity imports from coal-burning nations such as the Czech Republic. 
Germany promises that more of its future electricity will come from renewables, but if it shuts down its entire nuclear fleet the replacement power will come primarily from coal and gas. Indeed, while greens have fawned over its much-vaunted solar subsidies programme, Germany has actually been on a coal building boom, bringing 11 gigawatts of coal-fired generation online – six times the electricity it gets from solar – in the past 10 years alone.
Put simply, there is no credible path to stabilising, much less reducing, global carbon emissions without more nuclear power. We are a planet of 6bn people, heading toward 9bn. Even with better energy efficiency, global energy demand will soon double, perhaps triple. Without nuclear power, the vast majority of that demand will be met by fossil energy.
While effective coal usage has gone up in Germany since the nuclear shut down, in the long term Prime Minister Angela Merkel's government is deeply committed to a transition from nuclear and coal to renewables--not just that "more of its energy will come from renewables." This makes Germany the great laboratory for a rapid transition to renewables. From Yale Environment 360:
In mid-March, Merkel stunned the German public and other governments by announcing an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors as an immediate reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The chancellor now says she wants to slash the use of coal, speed up approvals for renewable energy investments, and reduce CO2 emissions drastically. That means that the 81 million Germans living between the North Sea and the Alps are supposed to cover their huge energy needs from wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass within a few decades. Indeed, by 2030 green electricity could be the dominant source of power for German factories and households.

“We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible,” Merkel said. . . . 
Merkel’s administration plans to shut down the nuclear reactors — which in recent years reliably provided up to a quarter of Germany’s huge needs as baseload electricity — by 2022 at the latest. It wants to double the share of renewable energy to 35 percent of consumption in 2020, 50 percent in 2030, 65 percent in 2040, and more than 80 percent in 2050. At the same time, the chancellor vows to cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 percent in 2020, by 55 percent in 2030, and by more than 80 percent in 2050.

That makes Germany the world’s most important laboratory of “green growth.” No other country belonging to the G20 club of economic powers has a comparable agenda. . . . 
"It’s over,” she told one of her advisers immediately after watching on TV as the roof of a Fukushima reactor blew off. “Fukushima has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany.”

Merkel’s conservative environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, recently echoed this line of thinking when he said that the Fukushima disaster “has swapped a mathematical definition of nuclear energy’s residual risk with a terrible real-life experience.” He added: “We can no longer put forward the argument of a tiny risk of ten to the power of minus seven, as we have seen that it can get real in a high-tech society like Japan.”

The new course is a huge challenge in terms of cost and feasibility. Of the current 82 gigawatts of peak demand, about half comes from coal, 23 percent from nuclear, 10 percent from natural gas, and 17 percent from renewables. That means three quarters of Germany’s electricity sources will have to be replaced by green technology within just a few decades, if the nuclear phase-out and the CO2 goals are to be accomplished. . . . 
Merkel’s big hope for her “energy turn” is offshore wind energy. After a sluggish start, several new commercial projects are under construction. On May 2, Merkel proudly pressed a button at a ceremony on the Baltic Sea coast, setting in motion 21 huge offshore wind turbines 16 kilometers away at sea. Taken together, they can provide 50,000 households with renewable energy. . . .
Japan is moving in a direction very similar to that of Germany, with the government of Naoto Kan announcing that Japan would give up its plans to build more nuclear power plants. The decision, writes the New York Times,
will mean the abandonment of a plan that the Kan government released last year to build 14 nuclear reactors by 2030 and increase the share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity supply to 50 percent. Japan currently has 54 reactors that before the earthquake produced 30 percent of its electricity. . . . 
The announcement Tuesday came just days after Mr. Kan said Japan remained committed to nuclear power. His apparent pull-back may be driven partly by public opinion, which has significantly soured on nuclear power since the Fukushima accident.  
Even before the announcement, the disaster had damped the nuclear industry’s hopes for a worldwide revival of reactor building. With demand for electricity and concerns about global warming both growing, the industry had projected rapid expansion, but Japan’s nuclear crisis had already caused several countries to become skittish about nuclear power. . . . 
Still, several experts and nuclear industry representatives said Tuesday that they expected demand in two important markets — China and India — to remain strong even though those counties had said they would proceed more cautiously. Both nations have rapidly growing demand for electricity, and neither has nearly enough domestic fuel to meet its needs.  
Nils J. Diaz, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a consultant for companies that want to build reactors, said he did not think the prime minister’s announcement would cause “a domino effect.” And Jonathan Hinze, vice president for international operations at the Ux Consulting Company in Roswell, Ga., which tracks the market for reactors, added that Japan’s suspension of new reactor building was less damaging than it seemed because many in the industry had doubted that Japan would have the demand to justify that much construction.   
A downturn in reactor construction would hurt Japanese companies that export nuclear plant designs and components, including Toshiba, which owns Westinghouse, and Hitachi, which is in a worldwide partnership with General Electric. Companies in France and South Korea also have a big stake in reactor building.  
On Tuesday, Mr. Kan said Japan would retain nuclear and fossil fuels as energy sources, but vowed to add two new pillars to Japan’s energy policy: renewable energy and conservation. While Japan has been a global leader in energy conservation, it lags behind the United States and Europe in adopting solar and wind power, and other new energy sources.  
“We need to start from scratch,” Mr. Kan told reporters. “We need to make nuclear energy safer and do more to promote renewable energy.” 
The wording seemed to at least leave open the possibility that some new nuclear plants could be built in the future.  
On Tuesday, Japan was reminded of the human costs of the Fukushima disaster, when the first group of 92 people paid two-hour visits to their homes in Kawauchi, within the 12-mile zone around the plant that was evacuated after the nuclear crisis.  
The residents wore white antiradiation clothing and traveled in buses under tight supervision by nuclear officials. They retrieved belongings like photo albums and the tablets traditionally used in Japan to honor dead relatives in household Buddhist shrines, according to local media reports.  
The government appeared to agonize for weeks over whether to allow even brief trips. Officials were concerned about whether civilians could be kept safe from exposure to potentially high radiation doses near the plant.  
Complicating their decision was the lack of scientific knowledge on the health effects of the radiation doses now found in many of the evacuated areas. Some scientists say radiation levels even in many evacuated areas are too low to cause immediate illness, while others worry that the incidence of cancer could rise over the long term.       
Nuclear power has suffered a comparable setback in the United States, where, in addition to safety concerns, it faces competition from cheap natural gas. A very significant divide is emerging between the "advanced industrialized democracies" and developing giants like China and India over the role of nuclear power in their energy mix.

The latest FT survey (May 30, 2011) has nuclear power bent but not broken from Fukushima: while sharp cutbacks are planned in Germany, in Japan the government still remains committed to getting 30% (rather than the more ambitious 50%) of Japan's electricity from nuclear by 2030, and "most of the leading countries that have planned to build new reactors, including China, France, the UK and South Korea, have been sticking to those plans." Growth in the nuclear power industry "will be slowed but not stopped."

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