No Need for Nukes

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Hermann Scheer explains why it is time for nuclear power to be relegated to the technology museum.

The end of the fossil energy age approaches. Its ecological limits draw near as material resources are exhausted. The advocates of nuclear energy see a new day dawning. Even some of its critics have joined the appeal for new nuclear power plants. There are now 442 nuclear reactors operating worldwide with a total capacity of 300,000 megawatts. Two and a half times this number will be added by 2030 and four times as many by 2050, says the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the bastion of the global nuclear community.

This pro-nuclear argument relies on two-fold inhibition. Amid contrary facts, the economic advantages are praised. The risks are minimised or declared technically surmountable. At the same time, renewable energies are denounced as uneconomical, with their potential marginalised in order to underscore the indispensability of nuclear energy.

Subsidisation and privilege

Trivialising the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl is part of this strategy. In Die Zeit Gerd von Randow wrote that there have been only 40 deaths and 2,000 registered cases of thyroid cancer. These figures have been provided by advocacy organisations. Independent studies, such as the report of the Munich Radiation Institute, have identified 70,000 casualties that include desperate suicides and the tens of thousands of long-term victims additionally projected.

Comparing these victims with the victims of coal mining and fossil energy emissions is an element of minimisation. However, both the massive nuclear and fossil tragedies necessitate mobilising renewable energy as the only prospect for lasting, emission-free, benign and inexpensive supplies.

The deployment of nuclear energy is the result of gigantic mechanisms of subsidisation and privilege. Before 1973 OECD governments spent over $150 billion (adjusted to current costs) in researching and developing nuclear energy, and practically nothing for renewable energy. Between 1974 and 1992 $168 billion was spent on nuclear energy and only $22 billion on renewables. The European Union's extravagant nuclear promotion efforts are not even included in this calculation. French statistics are still being kept secret. The total state support amounts to at least a trillion dollars, with mammoth assistance provided to market creation and to incentives for non-OECD countries, above all the former Soviet bloc.

Only $50 billion has been spent on renewable energy. Since 1957 the IAEA and Euratom have assisted governments in designing nuclear programmes. By contrast, no international organisations exist today for renewable energy.

After the middle of the 1970s, nuclear energy was largely burnt out, due more to enormously increased costs than to growing public resistance. The limitations on construction have become more severe. Uranium reserves estimated at a maximum 60 years refer to the number of plants currently in operation. With twice the number, the available time periods would inevitably be cut in half. The expansion calculated by the IAEA could not be realised without an immediate transition to the fast breeders for extending the uranium reserves.

The history of the breeder reactors is a history of fiascos. Like the Russian reactor, the British reactor achieved an operating capacity of 15 percent before its shutdown in 1992. The French Super Phoenix (1,200 megawatts) attained 7 percent and cost 10 billion euros. The much smaller Japanese breeder (300 megawatts) cost 5 billion euros and experiences regular operating problems. Making these reactors fit for operation, if that were to prove possible, would require incalculably greater add-on costs. This path of development would be prohibitive without continued or increased public expenditures. The thousand-year nuclear waste question remains an unresolved problem with unforeseeable permanent costs.

Four additional reasons speak against the future viability of nuclear power:

(1) Their enormous water requirements for steam processes and cooling conflict with intensified water emergencies due to climate change and the water needs of the growing world population.

(2) The excess heat of nuclear power plants is poorly suited for combined heat and power generation because of the high financial burdens of district heating systems appropriate to central nuclear power blocks.

(3) The danger of nuclear terrorism, not only by missile attacks on reactors, continues to grow with the intensification of 'asymmetrical conflicts'.

(4) Full-load operation of capital-intensive nuclear reactors that is indispensable for their profitability can only be guaranteed if governments again deliberalise the electricity markets and obstruct alternatives. The nuclear economy remains a (concealed) state economy.

All this would have to be accepted given the finite nature of fossil fuel resources if the possible option of renewable energy did not exist, with an energy supply potential for our planet that is 15,000 times greater than the annual consumption of nuclear and fossil energy. Scenarios depicting a full supply capability with available technologies have been compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US (1978), the International Institute for Applied System Analysis for Europe (1981) and the Enquete Commission of the German Bundestag (2002). While none of these analyses has ever been seriously refuted, all are ignored by conventional experts.

An electrical generation capacity of 16,000 megawatts has evolved in Germany over the last 12 years in consequence of the renewable energy law. New facilities with 3,000 megawatts were realised in 2003 alone. If this initial rate were reproduced over the next 50 years, a total capacity of 166,000 megawatts would result, equivalent to conventional capacities of 55,000 megawatts. Nevertheless it is a very widespread fallacy to think in isolated substitution steps and ignore increasing efficiency potentials. Renewable energy has unimagined advantages. Short energy chains replace the previous long energy chains which have losses of energy at every step of conversion and transformation. A relatively few highly centralised power plants will be superseded by many decentralised facilities. The need for wide-area infrastructure development declines dramatically.

Milestone development

This path will be blazed by new energy storage technologies soon to be introduced. Such technologies will remove the alleged permanent barriers of irregular wind and solar radiation patterns using electrostatic storage (supercondensers), electro-mechanics (flywheels, compressed air), electrodynamics (supraconducting magnets) or thermal storage with the assistance of metal hydrides. Energetically self-sufficient residential subdivisions and businesses supplied continuously by photovoltaic current or wind power alone will no longer be utopian. Hybrid systems with alternating complementary power plants (like wind power and biomass generators) are other variations. The elimination of ongoing fuel costs (except for bio-energy) and the power transmission expenses that make up the greatest part of the present electricity price would constitute a milestone development. The entire energy system including current modes of renewable energy employment would thereby be revolutionised.

Fossil fuel and nuclear costs will inevitably rise while renewable energy becomes continuously cheaper due to series production and technological optimisation. In the last ten years wind power costs have fallen by 50 percent and photovoltaics around 30 percent. Today's higher costs are the cost savings of tomorrow.

Renewable energy is also the answer to imminent crude oil and natural gas shortages affecting fuel and heating needs. Meanwhile, it is the official consensus at DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen and Ford that biosynthetic fuels or bio-ethanol, bio-diesel and bio-gas can be introduced more cheaply and quickly than hydrogen produced from nuclear power, for which a costly new infrastructure would be necessary. The available potential could satisfy the fuel needs of the world as declared at the world biomass conference in Rome in May 2004. Energy-efficient solar construction would supply complete houses with heating and cooling energy. In Germany there are already 3,000 houses that do not require external energy sources. The Reichstag in Berlin is supplied with 85 percent renewable energy.

The time has come to overcome structural-conservative blindness and faint-hearted technological pessimism towards renewable energy. Renewables must be ambitiously explored and promoted in politics, science and technology as nuclear power was once supported. The combined technological and economic optimisation of renewable energy will be easier to realise than for nuclear power, while avoiding its incalculable risks. The future age of nuclear/fossil energy should - the sooner the better - be relegated to technological museums.

Dr Hermann Scheer is a member of the German Bundestag. He is general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy and president of Eurosolar. In 1999 he won the alternative Nobel Prize.