A rapid German exit from nuclear energy may prove beneficial

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Eberhard Rhein argues the benefits of rapidly removing Germany's nuclear plants far outstrip the economic costs.

Eberhard Rhein is a former official in the European Commission's external relations department, responsible for the Mediterranean and Arab world.

He gives a course on economic policy at the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies in Malta.

This commentary was first posted on blogactiv.eu.

"No other country on earth has reacted with a such hectic to the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe as Germany. It has shut off the seven oldest of its 17 reactors, for a three-month moratorium. Nobody expects any of these to ever go back to the grid. In addition, the government has launched a comprehensive safety check of all its reactors with the firm intention of closing all of them at the earliest possible juncture, most likely before 2025.

Germany would thus be the first major industrial country doing without nuclear energy, and the 12th EU country – alongside with Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Latvia, Luxembourg and Portugal – to renounce it.

There are good reasons for doing without nuclear energy for each of the 11 EU countries. With the exception of Italy, they are small countries, are able to cover their electricity needs by imports from neighbours or from hydro, wind, gas or coal power plants.

But even big and industrial Germany has a case for rapidly exiting from nuclear power. It remains the most dangerous form of power generation. And, usually overlooked, it is also an expensive form of power generation if all cost elements – disposal and storage of nuclear waste and insurance against accidents – were fully internalised.

Germany has the potential for replacing its nuclear electricity by wind, photovoltaic and biomass energy, provided it steps up its efforts for enhancing energy efficiency and expanding the generation and transmission of renewable energies.

In 2010 nuclear energy provided only one fifth of German electricity demand, a bit more than from renewable sources. By 2020, Germany aims at covering close to 40% of its electricity demand through renewable energy , mostly wind, PV and biomass.

To get there, Germany must urgently improve and expand the capacity of its long-distance transmission lines. These must be converted to direct electricity and 'smart' control in view of cutting transmission costs and enabling the system to react quasi-instantaneously to variable supply of wind and solar power.

A smart grid is a pre-condition for a stable power supply throughout the year.

The German grid is badly lagging behind requirements, due to bureaucratic and judicial delays in planning and building and poor financial incentives for private investor capital to invest. The government realises the need to overcome these obstacles, but does not find it easy to do so because of inadequate federal competences.

It must equally offer incentives for building additional storage capacities, especially for long-term storage during the winter months. This is of primordial importance for the safety of a power system increasingly based on renewable sources.

Hydro-pump power stations are a proven vehicle for doing so, but Germany lacks enough suitable locations. Transforming excess power into hydrogen and pumping it into salt caves is another, though still untested possibility, for which test installations should be built.

In addition, Germany must review its incentives in favour of the grid and wind energy and at the detriment of photovoltaic energy, which has has been spoilt excessively in the past. But beyond a boost to renewable energy, Germany must take two additional measures.

Put a dent on new coal power plants. According to present planning German energy companies plan to build or modernise 14 GW of coal power plants until 2020, the equivalent of the present nuclear capacity.

Despite emission caps under the EU climate policy, coal-fired power plants remain an attractive alternative to nuclear power because of the low investment and the short building time required. To make this alternative less attractive, all new coal-fired power plants should be obliged to provide carbon capture and storage equipment after 2020, when the technology is expected to reach market maturity.

Give more attractive incentives for the thermal modernisation of its building stock and thereby reduce overall energy consumption. The present incentives fall far short of the potential and the dire needs to reduce energy consumption.

By implementing a rapid exit programme Germany and the the EU would benefit in four ways:

  • German industry would make a big leap forward towards technological leadership in renewable energies, advanced power transmission and power storage.
  • Germany would create several hundred thousand jobs, which would also have a positive impact on its neighbour countries.
  • Germany would demonstrate to other EU countries that it is possible to dispense with nuclear power.
  • Germany and all other member countries will learn that it may be advantageous to import electricity from neighbouring countries.

These advantages far outweigh the premature dismantling of 10 nuclear reactors that technically and economically might still be fit to run for another 20 years or so."

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