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Germany's Energiewende And The End Of Nuclear Power

Politics / Nuclear Power Nov 25, 2012 - 11:05 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


For Ukraine and Japan, learning to do without nuclear power needed shock treatment: the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The combined economic cost and losses due to these "unforseen nuclear accidents" will probably exceed $500 billion over the years and the decades. Nuclear accidents are in a class apart, for long term damage capability. Above all, certainly since Fukushima they cannot be kept away from and out of public debate.

Like all revolutions, Germany's Energiewende or energy transition - which took an intense new lease of life and renewed public interest following the Fukushima disaster - was set in motion by many factors. As several articles by myself on the subject have pointed out, the initial goals of Energiewende featured oil and gas saving, and action to limit CO2 emissions. The motivating policy goals were both economic and environmental but public interest and political commitment were initially low.

Along the way, and since 2011, something else happened: nuclear disaster in far away Japan, but reported in the world's media with nothing like the desperate censorship and politically-correct, lying suppression of nuclear power's real dangers and real costs that followed the Chernobyl catastrophe - the ultimate nuclear disaster, during which a reactor simply explodes and spews its radiological inventory equivalent to about 10 times the radiation release of the Hiroshima bomb to the four winds. Unlike seaboard Fukushima, Charnobyl is located hundreds of miles from the sea, in continental Europe, making sure the fallout would attain millions of people - including Germans.

Rather than bandy around death toll claims and counter-claims, suffice it to say that Chernobyl had a major enduring impact on German public opinion. Nuclear experts and promoters can sneer about this as they drive to work and earn a comfortable living on the back of the Friendly Atom - but in Germany the atom is not friendly, since at latest 1986.  To fully understand the Energiewende, and anticipate its twists and turns, it is essential to understand the role that Chernobyl played in shaping the German public's view of nuclear power. This was above all political.

Early attempts by German authorities, in 1986, to "play French" and simply lie to the public and dismiss any possibility of fallout contamination, which Germany's then interior minister, Friedrich Zimmerman tried for a few days following the April 26, 1986 disaster, were quite quickly abandoned. Radiation levels were sufficiently alarming - and sufficiently reported, not censored as they were in "nuclear friendly France" - for radical pubic health measures to be rapidly taken right across Germany.

Milk, wild fruits and mushrooms were early victims; soon, freshwater fish were added to the list; even bathing in lakes and rivers was heavily advised against. All salad greens and vegetables were to be carefully washed and rinsed, then dried, before consumption. Outdoor exercise and long walks, especially near the eastern borders of still-divided Germany (in 1986) were also no longer recommended. In Germany's southern wine-growing region, strict precautions with large economic consequences were applied - unlike in France's nearby Alsace, where "no nuclear fallout" had occurred. This was according to French state-controlled TV and radio and France's anxious-to-please government friendly private media. The same media, today, occasionally allows itself to comment on the fantastic levels of pesticide in all French wine and spirits, although not as yet on France's dirty, and cancerous diesel car fleets!

Long before Chernobyl nuclear power had a "bad image" in Germany. As early as 1975, residents of southern Germany's grape-growing region had occupied the site of a planned nuclear power station, and successfully forced its cancellation. Eleven years later, when they were ordered to destroy their grape crops because of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, this only confirmed their already-majority views on the "unfriendly" atom. After Chernobyl, it had taken the German nuclear lobby and its friends inside government many years to push back the anti-nuclear tide. Through the 1990s, the nuclear industry and the ruling conservative and Christian democrat governments fought nuclear opponents to a standoff. No new plants were built, but no existing facilities were closed. Nuclear power was very, very modern and high-tech. How could any accidents happen? In several countries, especially nuclear-friendly France and UK, nuclear power was touted as "low CO2" and a precious aid in climate change mitigation.

POST 2000
In 2000, a new left wing-dominated coalition government passed the comprehensive legislation that later became Energiewende, and this included the gradual phase out of nuclear power. However, true to its right-wing credentials, the part of the energy program and laws that provided for a gradual phase-out of nuclear power was overturned, but only in 2010, by the center-right coalition of current chancellor Angela Merkel, who also extended the operating life of aging nuclear plants by up to 14 years.

Merkel's decision triggered Germany's largest antinuclear protests since Chernobyl. Repeated giant demonstrations of 200 000 persons or more, were held. In France, 50 000 persons marching against nuclear power was already an eye-opener - explained away by French government friendly media, with a sneer, as "ageing post-1968 hippies".  Mass protests in Germany were however not enough, as French media gloatingly reported on a regular basis; the German public remained divided almost exactly 50/50 on the issue, and the fate of nuclear power remained undecided - until Fukushima.

Less than a week into the Fukushima crisis, Merkel's in fact troubling neutrality on any issue, any cause, or any policy yet again stunned the nation. The lady Chancellor who had relatively aggressively defended the extension of operating lifetimes for Germany's aging nuclear power plants, only a year previously, now abrubtly withdrew these extensions, and "temporarily" closed eight of Germany's oldest reactors. As in Japan after Fukushima, stop-or-start decisions on these "temporarily closures" became heavily politicized and "temporary" was the politically correct term. First described as a “precaution” by Germany’s environment minister Norbert Roettgen, "pending a safety review", the temporary closure of the last, eighth reactor  became permanently "delayed for refuelling".

But on May 30, 2011 Merkel held a dramatic press conference in the Chancellery. Flanked by her cabinet and wearing one of her trademark red jumpsuits, she announced that henceforth all "temporary closures" were permanent. The reactors would not be refuelled. Adding to the excitement, she then said the most industrialized nation in Europe, the world's fourth-largest economy, with a massive trade surplus due to its industry, would permanently close all nine of its remaining nuclear power plants by 2022. Even the exact date attracted its own, but smaller-sized to and fro of controversy.

Initial and outraged reaction by Germany's biggest nuclear operating power companies, especially RWE, by its colourful CEO Juergen Grossmann nicknamed "Nuclear Rambo", included the threat or promise of blackouts on a scale that Germany had not experienced since the allied bombing at the end of World War II. Skyrocketing electricity prices would then follow. Soon the nation's heavy manufacturing sector, and its car industry, in fact all industries would face collapse. It would be the end of the German economic miracle.

As we know, in fact nothing happened. Germany quickly adapted to the loss of the more-than-25% (but no much above that) of national power which nuclear electricity had provided.

The real blackout was political. Merkel's support for the Energiewende, like her support for many other policies and programs had always been tepid. However, she had suddenly pinned Germany's future entirely on renewable energy and energy saving. One journalist jibed that it was like French wine-makers suddenly saying they would abandon pesticides or the Pope would advise using condoms.

Merkel's early life and career, like Margaret Thatcher's had included both pure and applied chemistry and science research, before entering politics. Merkel believed this made her well aware of the enormity of the task that lay ahead - but also taking a leaf from Thatcher and her Churchill-type posturing and preening, she said Germany now had a historic opportunity to step forward on the world stage. In her own words: "We believe that we can show those countries who decide to abandon nuclear power—or not to start using it—how it is possible to achieve growth, create jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies."

The nuclear industry and its supporters were initially enraged by Merkel's decision. They predicted blackouts, skyrocketing electricity prices and economic ruin. They said Germany would be forced to import electricity from, of all places, France's nuclear power plants or Poland's coal-fired plants. Utilities in Germany would have to burn more coal to make up for the lost nuclear power, which they do today, but to make up for delays and commercial disputes surrounding the building of gas-fired power plants to back up renewable-source power generation. The claim that greenhouse gas emissions would "skyrocket" was also false, they declined a little in 2011 and increased a little in 2012.

The British right wing economic magazine The Economist, which in 1998 had gleefully predicted oil prices of "$5 a barrel by 2010", branded Merkel's May 2011 action "a lunatic gamble." Germany' trade surplus remains massive while the UK goes on running huge deficits, to add to its national debt and small scale economy status, relative to economic giant Germany.

Energiewende in its evolving and emerging forms and formats is now at least 10 years old - in fact the date when "energy transition" policy and planning started in Germany can easily be traced back to the 1990s and even earlier. The storm of protest against Merkel's "historic decision" of May 2011, which she continues to tepidly support, with more and more ambiguity and perhaps "more by duty than conviction", has shifted to the political arena in the 18 months since that decision.

Importantly, there have been no blackouts: Germany's power grid, already the most reliable in Europe, experienced a total of 15 minutes and 30 seconds of brownouts in 2011, less than in 2010. Countries like the USA had several hours of brownouts, in 2011. In major part due to the anarchic growth of renewable energy, average wholesale prices of electricity have gone down, not up, but price volatility has exploded. The electricity-intensive German manufacturing sector is still thriving and, because of Energiewende, is moving ahead rapidly to produce its own electricity, from any source, either fossil or renewable, and will possibly sell surplus power and heat to local Stadtwerke, Germany's very active municipal energy providers, opening serious doubts for hopes of nationwide Smart-Super Grids.

Germany finished the year 2011 as a net exporter of electricity, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2% relative to 2010. This cut was however heavily distanced by emission cuts in several other EU27 countries - notably the PIIGS, because their economies imploded.

The early criticisms, like the early plaudits have tended to disappear, since 2011. One immediate lesson is the early naysayers claim that "the new energy economy will not work" is probably false. Supporters of Energiewende, ranging from Joshka Fischer and Fritz Vahrenholt to Rainer Baake, who brokered the first plan to phase out nuclear power, approach the now immensely complex subject from different angles. Simplist arguments such as  "solar power produces predictable ranges of energy output during the day, while winds tend to blow primarily at night" have been distanced and swamped by the pace of industrial production, and installation of renewable-source electricity generating equipment. Unexpected events have been predictable by their frequency - for example Germany's continuing decline of electricity consumption, and all other forms of energy, despite economic indicators that would or should show growth. Germany's now almost traditional afternoon TV talkshow theme of "getting the energy mix right", with phone-ins from viewers, only has one conclusion: it isn't easy.

Some early Energiewende supporters, especially Vahrenholt, have distanced themselves from what they call its anarchic, Sorceror's Apprentice growth and breakneck haste. Vahrenholt asks why, for example, Germany should have about a half of the world's total solar power capacity - in a country closer to the Pole than the Equator. Others have criticized Merkel's decision to immediately close eight nuclear plants, saying the closures should have been phased gradually, as the 2000 legislation would have done.

Some commentators suggest Germany's carbon emissions could decline more, and faster, because Merkel's May 2011 decision has also accelerated the decommissioning of Germany's older coal plants, but new ones are delayed, for a range of reasons including risk-aversion and financial troubles at Germany's Big Four major power companies, which they blame on Energiewende, not financial mismanagement. Unexpected factors such as German industry's own energy transition - towards self-generating, own-supply systems - have also led to further delays in building new and cleaner, fossil-fuelled plants, while renewable-source power capacity leaps ahead.

Even since May 2011 however, global energy has changed, and Germany's energy scene has changed. The initial energy security goal of Energiewende, to cut dependence on gas and oil imports from Russia has changed with the outlook of global LNG gas supplies increasing radically, and gas prices falling, by at latest 2020. Oil prices are decreasingly likely to conform with the IEA's now outdated but repeated forecasts of "year average $175 per barrel by 2017". German electricity demand, like demand in the majority of EU27 countries, is either growing very slowly, or declining. 

European energy, despite all 27 member states of the Union having their own "Energiewendes", called the REAPs, is increasingly "divergent", but still locked into the 1970s and 1980s fear of energy insecurity, supply shortage, and high producer prices. For European motorists, paying up to 2 euro per litre for fuel (about $375 per barrel) oil producer prices of $100 a barrel are of no interest, because end-user prices are extreme high, due to State energy taxes, and are almost unrelated to producer prices.

Making a smooth transition to a renewable energy-based economy is simply not possible by ruining energy consumers. The big-spending wishlist, to be sure, is almost endless: as shown by the now  farcical story of UK government attempts to "relaunch nuclear power" in Britain, with its contracts for difference and electricity market regulation - and guaranteed producer prices for nuclear electricity up to 166 euros per 1000 kWh (145 GBP/MWh) - trying to breathe life back into La Fee Atomique, or the nuclear fairy as it is called in nuclear-besotted France, is a very expensive game.

Europe's antiquated power system should become more flexible, more efficient, able to respond quickly to demand, but when this wish is confronted by the two options of either centralized power production, or decentralized production, there is no simple answer. For coal and nuclear power however the answer is simple. For all practical purposes, coal and nuclear power plants have only two settings: off or on. In an emerging renewables-dominated power system, with increasing numbers of independent self-generators off-grid and offline, the economic case for abandoning coal and nuclear grows ever stronger. The choice becomes simple in this respect: neither nuclear nor coal.

To be sure, unrepentant global warming hysterics such as Britain's James Lovelock or the USA's James Hansen cling to the all-powerful image of nuclear power, like any easily impressed and easily manipulated schoolboy. They gargle idiot friendly slogans such as Hansen's one-liner - despite the real world results from Germany: "for the foreseeable future, renewable energies will not be a sufficient source of electric power." In Germany and today, overproduction of renewable-source electricity is already a major problem.

This in no way means that Energiewende faces "plain sailing". Even it's most ardent supporters admit that it faces plenty of increasing-sized hurdles. In theory at least, Germany needs to build more peak response power plants—natural gas turbines that can ramp up and down, sometimes in less than a  minute, to quickly smooth out the intermittent power profile of renewables. The electrical grid also needs to be expanded, at least in theory, but ever less certainly - because this is an expensive proposition. Debate on the subject, which is low cost, will tend to substitute building the new pylons and cables, or burying them underground at even higher cost. A highly theoretical pan-European power system is even more expensive, and even less likely also because it is "politically challenging".

Coming months will show to what extent global warming fear is still able to be utilised to defend new and higher energy taxes and higher energy prices - this is freshly re-elected president Obama's bet. He may lose this bet, but in Germany its bet against nuclear power, driven by massive popular and political support has won out against all the nuclear propaganda and lies.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2012 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor

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