“There can be no excuse for a renaissance in nuclear energy”

Article published on Nov. 15, 2005
Article published on Nov. 15, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

There is export potential for the new environmentally-friendly trend in energy generation set by the German SPD-Green coalition government, according to the German Minister for the Environment, Jürgen Trittin.

Whilst Germany’s Social Democrat-Green coalition government may be handing over the reigns of power following the recent federal elections, for the time being Jürgen Trittin of the Green party is still the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. While Foreign Minister and Green party friend Joschka Fischer has stepped out of the public eye, Trittin is busy securing his political legacy: the continuation of the German nuclear energy opt-out and the new direction in energy politics. His designated successor, Sigmar Gabriel of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), has already adopted Trittin’s stance: the plan for nuclear energy to be phased out in Germany is non negotiable.

Nuclear energy is experiencing an international renaissance. Worldwide, nearly 30 nuclear power plants are being built; Poland alone wants to build three new reactors. What benefit would the phasing out of nuclear energy in Germany bring, if opposing policies are being pursued elsewhere?

There is absolutely no excuse for a renaissance in nuclear energy. In Europe, for example, the proportion of energy being produced by nuclear fuels is dropping. The repeated attempts by nuclear lobbyists, through the use of media and political campaigns, to resurrect the declining product which is nuclear energy, will not change this trend. Atomic energy lobbyists would happily emphasise the issue of climate change [nuclear energy does not produce CO2], speak of ambitious plans to expand nuclear energy production capacity around the world, and discredit the German opt-out as a unique example. But nuclear power plants can’t make any relevant contribution to stopping climate change – on the contrary – they encourage energy inefficiency and waste. And upon closer inspection, the supposed big, new nuclear energy programmes being discussed turn out to be old classics. A look at the statistics verifies the sharp decline of nuclear energy: in 1990, 83 reactors were being built in the world; in 1998 there were 36 and today it’s 29. And even this figure has been cosmetically enhanced - some of these projects have featured in the statistics for over 25 years, in other sectors they would be classed as failed projects! No new nuclear reactor has been commissioned in the USA in the last 30 years, and in all the other industrial western countries only 1 new reactor is being built – in Finland. And this project is only possible because it has been secured by state loans and long-term purchasing guarantees for the energy being generated. The majority of countries in Europe have either already given up nuclear energy or have committed themselves to an opt-out. China is often held up by way of example by the nuclear lobby, but just look at what is happening there: China has opted for a massive expansion of energy supply from renewable sources. The Chinese want to install plants capable of generating 60 gigawatts of electricity from renewable sources by 2010. That is 10 times the current capacity of China’s nuclear power stations, and 30 times the capacity that the three new nuclear power stations China wants to have completed by 2010 can feed into the national grid.

Over the past few years, Germany has experienced an unrivalled boom in renewable energy. What reaction has this development prompted from the large energy producers?

As a result of strong growth, renewable energy has increased its market share by 1% year by year. That means that every year, energy from conventional sources loses some of its market share. The big players are trying to defend themselves from this with all the means available to them. The call for extending the life of old atomic power plants is exactly that. Those who have been able to write-off their initial investment costs can produce power for significantly less. No new power plant can compete with that. The SPD-Green coalition has, thanks to the nuclear opt-out and the emissions trading scheme, managed to create a level playing field for investment, especially in new non-nuclear power plants and technologies. We have unleashed a boom worth some 14 billion euros in the market for highly efficient gas- and coal-fired power stations. This equates to the capacity of 15 nuclear power plants. Those who choose to operate old nuclear power stations for longer are simply stalling and delaying this process of modernisation, and must weigh this up against the massive impact such a decision has on the construction of power plants and jobs in Germany. The demands of the four big energy producing companies in Germany, who on the one hand have raked in record profits and on the other hand have slashed tens of thousands of jobs, all serve the aim of maximising profits.

How can the German trend towards renewable energies be exported, so as to ensure a coherent and sustainable energy generation for the European Union?

An expansion of renewable energy requires a suitable framework, one which provides businesses with investment security. In Germany, that framework has been created through the Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz (EEG) [Renewable energy law], and which has not only led to an unparalleled boom in Germany, but which has also proven to be an export hit in Europe and all over the world. About 40 countries have by now introduced regulations which are at least in part based on the EEG, amongst them Brazil, China and Spain. This has shown that in those countries where electricity is being fed into the grid at a set and guaranteed price (a feed-in tariff), like in Germany and Spain, not only does the supply of renewable energy expand rapidly and strongly, but it also leads to the cheapest energy production price per kilowatt hour. In Spain, where 20% of electricity consumption is from renewable sources, and in Germany, where it is 11%, generation costs lie between 7 and 8.5 euro cents per kilowatt hour. This contrasts with other countries which do not have a feed-in tariff, where it is significantly more expensive: in the UK over 10 euro cents and in Italy 15.5 euro cents.