Phasing Out Nuclear Power – The Engine for Modernizing the Economy
Professor Hennicke, how do you appraise the German attitude towards nuclear energy?
In Germany a stable majority has long been in favor of a phase-out – especially after the reactor accident at Chernobyl and the related radioactive fall-out. The basis of this critical attitude is a controversial but well-informed discussion by the media, the public and experts about the risks of nuclear energy and the available alternatives. With the meltdown of the nuclear power station Fukushima Daiichi in high-tech Japan, the fiction of a tolerable “residual risk” of nuclear energy finally fell to pieces. Political parties in Germany that ignore this are no longer capable of gaining a majority.
How do you assess the German nuclear phase-out?
Chancellor Merkel’s about-face after Fukushima was an intelligent response, because it was unavoidable for the continued capacity to govern and based on expert opinion. Before Fukushima, in the autumn of 2010, the German government had already resolved on an energy program with “revolutionary” long-term aims and objectives, based on arguably the world’s best scientific data and scenario projections and on a consensus of energy experts. The experts’ message was: the reduction of primary energy consumption by 50 per cent by 2050, with moderate economic growth and C02 reduction of 80 to 95 per cent, is possible without nuclear power and economically attractive. So in this respect the feasibility of the energy turnaround and nuclear phase-out is scientifically well-founded.
Renewable energy as export hit
Will the phase-out be lasting, or could it be reversed?
Only if the security of the energy supply, and the capacity of citizens and the economy to bear the economic costs, came into question would a new about-face be theoretically conceivable. But despite a number of still to be solved problems (for instance, of storage and grid expansion), there is no sign of this. The existing studies suggest that the opposite will be the case: If energy efficiency measures and renewable energy systems are shrewdly combined with a policy of security and prosperity as an alternative to climate and nuclear risks, the energy turnaround will become the German economy’s main engine of ecological modernization and the export hit par excellence.
How do you assess the international reaction to the German nuclear phase-out? It is often looked upon skeptically.
Skepticism prevails in those countries that are heavy dependent on fossil-fuel and nuclear technology (the “hard path”). In these countries, such as the Czech Republic, to depart from the chosen but no longer viable “hard path” requires visionary courage. Scenarios show that a “soft path”, without nuclear power and oil, is in principle possible worldwide by 2050. In this respect it is very much in the interest of many countries to see whether, until when and with what economic results a high-tech country such as Germany can manage the energy turnaround. If Germany is successful – and much says that it will be – this will trigger a domino effect towards low-risk “green” energy systems.
In other countries, such as the Czech Republic, nuclear energy is still assessed much more positively. How do you explain that?
In the Czech Republic nuclear energy is still regarded as modern, as essential for national competitiveness, as an additional source of income through export of purportedly cheap energy, and as a seemingly simple way to protect the climate. The downside: future technologies that are based on renewable energy and improved energy efficiency are neglected. The Czech Republic lies below the EU average in actual and target outcomes in energy efficiency and green energy quotas (only 14 per cent in 2020!). Not seen here is that the Czech Republic has a large modernization potential, particularly in energy and resource productivity (it lies at about a factor of three below the EU average!), but also in renewable energies (biomass, wind, water, solar and geothermal energy).
Nuclear energy is the most expensive energy in the world
Some countries speak of the “German fear of the atom”.
To underestimate the risks of nuclear energy would be reckless for three reasons. First, the euro crisis is a small accident compared to the human disasters and economic damage of a meltdown. Second, evaluated according to its true costs, nuclear energy is the most expensive energy in the world – no company will risk insuring it. Third: the future of power plant technology is everywhere “lean”, “green” and “clean”. My thesis is that major investments in nuclear power plant technology (20 billion euros for the planned expansion of Temelin II!) prolong the “lock-in” effect of the “hard path” and block green growth, modernization and competitiveness.
In the Czech Republic, Temelin is considered very safe...
Advocates of nuclear power always declare “their” nuclear power plants to be the safest in the world. Before Chernobyl, Russian reactors were regarded as safe and, before Fukushima, especially Japanese ones. In Germany there is now a new consensus: if energy efficiency and renewable energies make feasible low-risk alternatives and bring economic advantages, we should phase-out nuclear power even with a minimum probability of accident, because of the potential magnitude of the damage.
According to the expansion plans of the federal states, the proportion of renewable power in Germany could be over 50 per cent by 2025 – the year of the planned start-up of Temelin II. If by then there exists the internal power market that everyone desires, green German power exports will be unrivalledly cheap (stock market price evaluated according to merit order at low incremental cost) and replace nuclear power. To rely on nuclear power export in the long-term is therefore extremely risky from an economic point of view.
conducted the interview. He is an Essayist and Professor for Political Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and Professor for the philosophy of Science at the Leopold Franzens University of Innsbruck.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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