On May 30th the news broke about Germany shutting down all nuclear reactors by 2022. This was no real surprise, but in my opinion a very foolish decision nonetheless. From a political point of view, that of the German government, it does make sense of course. The German public is overwhelmingly in favour of such a move.
Now, Germans are of course not more stupid than the inhabitants of their neighbouring countries, but I think they should ask themselves if they haven’t been a tad misled. Why is it that a majority of Germans are scared of nuclear power to such a degree, when the inhabitants of France (80-90% nuclear coverage!), Sweden, Finland and others are not?
The trigger is of course the Fukushima “disaster”, a disaster that just like the Three Miles Island incident has yet to kill anyone. This is in contrast to the actual earthquake and tsunami in Japan that has about 24 000 confirmed killed and missing combined.
Despite the extreme event from nature’s side, possibly the most extreme experienced in modern times, the reactors in Fukushima did not kill anyone. Despite its heavy damage causing actual meltdowns, the containment vessel held. No radioactive material from the reactor itself has been released.
In fact, deaths related to nuclear power are extremely rare. Even the major and extreme failure caused by human error in Chernobyl have less than a 100 deaths connected to it. (Many more are expected to die of cancer, but this is statistically difficult to prove given the high proliferation of cancer in any case. The expectation is in any case low compared to the figures mentioned below.)
Unlike nuclear power, the suggested replacements in Germany, coal power and natural gas, are deadly. As it is, all commonly used power sources, including “safe” ones such as solar, wind and hydro are more deadly (in terms of actual statistics) than nuclear power – a thorough treatise on the subject here. The upshot is that mining and burning coal is so dangerous and polluting that thousands die every year. Natural gas, especially the sort that is piped to the end user, is also dangerous, as many many are killed each year in gas explosions due to the difficulty in properly maintaining all the gas pipes.
But radiation is dangerous, isn’t it? Well, yes, in extreme amounts it is. It is just that it is difficult to actually be exposed to such amounts, and that is especially true when around a nuclear power plant. The author of XKCD recently made a nice graphical view of the amounts and sources you’re normally exposed to.
This isn’t to say that nuclear power is without issues, pertaining to waste handling, proliferation risks, uranium supply security and further improved safety precautions. These are all solvable within reasonable time though, and not immediate problems by themselves.
Beyond the decisions now made, there will be real issues for Germany, and for Europe as a whole. The electricity generated by the nuclear plants that will be powered down, must be replaced. If they fail, energy prices will rise in the whole energy pool area, one that is much greater than that of Germany itself. German industry, one that is power hungry, may see reduced margins due to increased prices.
The plan is unclear, but most commentators believe that a huge portion of the replacement must come from coal. From a country committed to lowering CO2 emissions, this seems like an incredulous move. Germany is also committed to increasing coverage from solar and wind power, but it’s just not a country where that can possibly replace removed capacity. So to top up that, there is also a likely increased usage of natural gas, which although much cleaner than coal and oil, also emits CO2.
Such a massive change must cost something? Oh yes, it will. In a world, and a Europe, where financial stability is continiously challenged, this is a move that most likely will affect the average German in a notable manner.
Later I hope to write more about our energy challenges, how and if green energy fits into the picture, the very exciting technologies, nuclear and others, under developement.