Germany, Italy, Greens, nukes and climate change

This was published on Guardian.co.uk on 15 June 2011

Ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer. That’s what happened in the Italian referendum on nuclear power on Monday, where voters overwhelmingly backed anti-nuclear campaigners’ demands to block any new atomic power in Italy. Referendums are not a good way to set energy policy, nor many other aspects of national policy either – if a referendum were held on capital punishment in Britain, a hefty majority would support bringing back hanging.

The Italian result needs to be seen in the context of a wider European political debate where anti-nuclear campaigners – led by the greens – have been successful in discrediting nuclear power. No doubt a referendum in Austria would have the same result, while the governments of Switzerland and Germany have already decided to phase out their nuclear plants altogether in response to the Fukushima accident in Japan.

As a lifelong environmentalist, and author of a 2009 book which laid out the terrifying prospects of uncontrolled global warming, I cannot help but feel that the decisions of the German and Swiss governments rank among the worst climate-related policies of recent years. Carbon emissions cannot do anything other than rise as a result of phasing out the continent’s largest source of zero-carbon power – and doing this just a week after the International Energy Agency reported that 2010 carbon emissions rose to the highest levels ever is little short of criminal.

There is perhaps a certain discomfort about the fact that one of the best options for tackling global warming just so happens to be a technology that greens had spent decades opposing before climate change even hit the agenda. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard green groups insisting that climate change is the “greatest challenge ever to face humanity”. Yet their refusal to reassess their inherited positions against nuclear power suggest that none of them actually believe what they are saying – or that most environmentalists are prepared to take refuge in ideologically motivated wishful thinking even when the future of the planet is at stake.

If the German greens really took climate change seriously, they would instead be pushing for a phase-out of coal – which generates by far the largest proportion of the country’s power and consequent carbon emissions – from Germany’s electricity grid. Instead, the new nuclear phase-out plan will see a hefty 11GW of new coal plants built in years to come, with an additional 5GW of new gas. (Update: Chancellor Merkel is now talking about 20GW of new fossil fuel plant that will be needed.) The only way emissions from these plants could be controlled would be through “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) – yet Greenpeace in Germany has already mounted a successful scaremongering campaign against this new technology, helping to ensure that future fossil emissions will go into the atmosphere unabated.

Unfortunately, the new coal plants will spew out more radioactivity into surrounding areas than any of the German nuclear plants would have done if they stayed open, thanks to the fact that trace isotopes in coal escape up power station chimneys. That all of this has come about in response to Fukushima – a non-fatal accident which has so far injured no one, not even the workers who have bravely battled to stabilise the tsunami-stricken reactors – elevates irrationality to a guiding principle of political policy in countries which supposedly pride themselves in taking scientific rationality seriously.

Indeed, it would be far more rational on a risk-precautionary basis to phase out Germany’s organic farming sector, given that the recent E coli outbreak – now traced to organic sprouts produced on a farm in Lower Saxony – has killed nearly as many people as Chernobyl (36 at the time of writing, with 700 or more suffering permanent kidney damage). I have not of course heard any suggestions to this end from the German greens. And just imagine the hullaballoo had the sprouts been genetically modified instead of the “healthy” organic option.

The German government insists that the nuclear phase-out plan is entirely compatible with its emission-reduction goals. Yet this is the same government which recently extended subsidies for loss-making coal mines until 2018. It also flies in the face of mathematical logic: in 2008 Germany relied on nuclear for 23 percent of its electricity. Renewable generation in Germany has increased substantially in recent years (to 17% in 2010) – yet to ask renewables to replace nuclear as well as fossil fuels will make the achievement of Germany’s climate goals doubly difficult, and therefore twice as unlikely to actually happen.

The silliness does not stop there. Much of Germany’s renewables investment has been in solar photovoltaics in recent years, thanks to extraordinarily generous feed-in-tariffs. Yet these solar roofs are so expensive that they cost more than €700 per tonne (PDF) of carbon abated, compared to a carbon price in Europe of €15 or less. One expert study suggests that the whole solar experiment up until this year has already landed German energy consumers with a €120bn liability for the next two decades – this in order to generate a mere 2% of the country’s electricity, or less than a single large nuclear plant.

In contrast, the UK’s energy policy actually looks quite sensible these days. There is a broad ambition – articulated by the excellent Climate Change Committee – to decarbonise the entire electricity sector by 2030, by deploying nuclear and renewables in roughly equal proportions of 40% or so. There is a lot of sense also in Britain’s policy of ramping down feed-in-tariffs for solar PV, which cost the Earth while doing little to reduce emissions in this cloudy northern country. Unlike the UK, however, Germany has gone around trumpeting its new policy as worthy of emulation by other nations – let us hope for the sake of the climate that no-one follows down the blind alley led by the German greens.

12 comments

  1. Barry Woods says:

    any thoughts on thorium nuclear technology..

    My understnding of why it was not developed further decades ago, was purely because the alternative could also be used to produce plutonium.
    (ie weapons drove the nuclear energy policy, hence the green hatred of nuclear

    I did read somewhere that the Chinese were going to invest quite heavily into thorium..

    but existing nuclear would do, at tlest the current modern designs. (ie not those in Japan)

    • The Manhattan Project left the US with a colossal (and secret) industrial infrastructure for the enrichment of uranium. I believe the gas diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, constructed and started up 1943-4 by the DuPont corporation, was the largest building in the world at the time. That was just one component of the atomic bomb production process. The plutonium producing reactors at Hanford were another massive investment. They ran on uranium and provided a lot of knowledge and insight into the behavior of that fuel. Operated by General Electric. It was never a possibility that all that could be chucked down the drain and an alternative process embarked on. The story, which I am familiar with, that peace;loving thorium technology was deliberately suppressed by Dr Strangelove and Co is a classic example of what can be achieved by looking down the historical telescope the wrong way. Suddenly all these tiny, luminous, distant events conform precisely to our wishful thinking of today.
      Thorium is not fissile. Exposed to neutron bombardment it turns to Uranium 233. Thats what you use in your reactor. It is characteristic of nuclear engineering, peaceful and warlike, that there have always been far more workable ideas than can be actively pursued. This is a function of the extreme cost and danger of experimenting with these materials. It is perfectly possible to make a bomb with U233 but, as far as I know, only one has been detonated. Met shot. Operation Teapot. Nevada. March 55.
      The Met bomb was designed by Ted Taylor, notorious for lighting a cigarette by using a parabolic mirror to reflect the flash of a nuclear detonation. They had a lot of fun testing those bombs. Years later Taylor (by then an outspoken nuclear disarmer) was visiting Prof at Princeton. He and his class set about designing the safest possible nuclear power plant. Taylor had worked for the General Atomics company on the legendary Project Orion spaceship and they set about building a plant based on this revolutionary design. It used thorium in a kind of pebble fuel. I forget the details. It is called Fort St Vrain. In Colorado. The history of this venture illustrates the difficulties of running new types of nuclear process. Unforseen behavior of materials subjected to very high radiation and the problems and expense of fixing anything that goes wrong. FSV burns gas now and General Atomics are doing very nicely out of Predator drones. Ted Taylor, in his later days, while conceeding that nuclear weapons are “the most cost effective and reliable method of killing large numbers of people” came to believe that all nuclear activity was a disastrous misuse of resources. He took an early interest in AGW and had some innovative energy conservation ideas. He built an “ice pond” at Princeton. By spraying water in the air in the depths of winter they filled an insulated pit with ice. In summer solar powered pumps used it to run the aircon. He died a few years ago.
      Thorium’s day will come if and when uranium starts getting more difficult to procure. If China really does get building a lot of reactors that could happen sooner rather than later so they’re already looking at the options. One thing that makes China quite different from the rest of the world is that the group of people who are running it are from a technical and engineering background, rather than media, business and the law which is the norm elsewhere. Their views on the role of Joe Public in the decision making process approximate to those of Mark Lynas. However if they did have a referendum there and I happened to be Chinese I would might vote yes for the following reasons: 1. We’ve got billions of dollars of currency reserves which could turn to toilet paper anytime. Why not spend it on foreign technology? 2. We’ve got absolutely chronic and endemic air pollution in some regions which is seriously affecting health. It might be worth taking a few risks to address that. 3. One thing our autocratic and corrupt government knows about is engineering and science. They should be able to make a proper job of this, including finding a permanent store for the waste.
      The situation in Italy is almost the precise opposite of this!

  2. Casualties at Fukushima. Off the top of my head. Six soldiers injured when reactor 3 blew up. Two men burnt by radioactive water. That adds up to more than zero. Oh yes, and the CEO had a heart attack…

  3. Barry Woods says:

    26,000 people died in a tidal wave… why are they less important, why is the nuclear incident somehow more important than those people, as far as the enviro’s and MSM reporting is concerned

  4. Hobbes says:

    Hi Mark.

    I see on your twitter feed you recommended an article written by somebody from the “Climate Resistance” website which you describe as an “interesting critique” of the IPCC. I’d like to know how many of the principles of the ‘Climate Resistance” site you adhere to, and whether you think that people who write things on there are genuinely trustworthy people in the debate over how to stop the worst effects of climate change.

    They are as follows:

    1. There is good scientific evidence that human activities are influencing the climate. But evidence is not fact, and neither evidence nor fact speak for themselves.

    2. The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is neither as strong nor as demanding of action as is widely claimed.

    3. Our ability to mitigate, let alone reverse any such change through reductions in CO2 emissions is even less certain, and may itself be harmful.

    4. The scientific consensus on climate change as widely reported inaccurately reflects the true state of scientific knowledge.

    5. How society should proceed in the face of a changing climate is the business of politics not science.

    6. Political arguments about climate change are routinely mistaken for scientific ones. Environmentalism uses science as a fig leaf to hide an embarrassment of blind faith and bad politics.

    7. Science is increasingly expected to provide moral certainty in morally uncertain times.

    8. The IPCC is principally a political organisation.

    9. The current emphasis on mitigation strategies is impeding society’s ability to adapt to a changing climate, whatever its cause.

    10. The public remain unconvinced that mitigation is in their best interests. Few people have really bought into Environmentalism, but few people object vehemently to it. Most people are slightly irritated by it.

    11. And yet climate change policies go unchallenged by opposition parties.

    12. Environmentalism is a political ideology, yet it has never been tested democratically.

    13. Widespread disengagement from politics means that politicians have had to seek new ways to connect with the public. Exaggerated environmental concern is merely serving to provide direction for directionless politics.

    14. Environmentalism is not the reincarnation of socialism, communism or Marxism. It is being embraced by the old Right and Left alike. Similarly, climate change scepticism is not the exclusive domain of the conservative Right.

    15. Environmentalism will be worse for the poor than climate change.

    16. Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  5. Ben Pile says:

    I’d like to know what the statement on my site has to do with Mark’s discussion of nuclear energy. Actually, no I don’t.

    As for ‘trust'; I don’t ask for it. The arguments stand or fall whether you trust me or not.

  6. Dennis says:

    716 Euro per tonne CO2 is really a lot, for wind it is less 54 Euro a tonne (same source). Do you have an estimate of the cost per tonne for a new nuclear power plant?

  7. James Aach says:

    In general, thinking about energy policy is greatly muddled by misconceptions regarding how power sources work, how much power they actually provide, and how feasible they are to build and operate. I think we’ll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present.

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

    My media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just do the nuclear stuff for a living. (Not many of the experts can say that.) I think I have explained the biz well in a non-yawn-producing manner. But it’s a bit of a tree falling in a forest………

  8. Italian Opinion says:

    Well… I’m Italian and I voted against nuclear last Monday (as well as in 1984).

    I simply think it is irrational to vote for nuclear energy.
    It cannot be controlled, it costs a lot in terms of time (40 years to get it from a plant!) and in Italy where politicians tend to promote their personal interest instead of common interests, it can be VERY, VERY DANGEROUS!!!

    Besides, if we keep on thinking about nuclear we will never produce substainable and renewable energy.

  9. MarkB says:

    “I have lost count of the number of times I have heard green groups insisting that climate change is the “greatest challenge ever to face humanity”. Yet their refusal to reassess their inherited positions against nuclear power suggest that none of them actually believe what they are saying ”

    Every discussion of global warming should start with those words. Hell, the “greatest challenge ever to face humanity” isn’t even great enough to overcome the aversion to perfectly clean hydro power. Either we are ‘destroying the planet’ or we aren’t. Personally, I believe we aren’t, so I feel no need to engage in such embarrassing hypocrisy.

    And about this other bit:

    “if a referendum were held on capital punishment in Britain, a hefty majority would support bringing back hanging.”

    I fail to see the problem, beyond ‘if a referendum were held,’ our side would lose. If you really believe that, then capital punishment cannot be labeled as ‘medieval,’ or any of the other popular slanders. If the general population is in favor now, then it cannot possibly be ‘from the past’ by definition. It may be morally wrong, but that’s just your opinion.

    A referendum IS a bad way to deal with nuclear power, because nuclear power is part of a complex system. Capital punishment is not – the thing stands on its own. If capital punishment was reinstated, there would not be rolling brown-outs in the UK, and the cost of living would not go up. The analogy falls apart under superficial scrutiny.

  10. anja says:

    i’m not an idiot and yet i’m not for nuclear energy. certainly not the way it’s done now – where the fox is in charge of the hen-house.
    http://www.pjstar.com/free/x1781765020/AP-study-U-S-nuclear-regulators-weaken-safety-rules

    as long as reactors live in the for-profit world there will be corners cut and the smartest, safest and cleanest solutions won’t inevitably translate to the most financially profitable ones and will often lose out. as the article shows, even regulating safety is not foolproof.

    i live in the netherlands, right now there is talk of building a second reactor in borssele. you should look on a map, where it’s situated. then think global warming, sea level rise. the current reactor was designed to work up to 2013, government now decided to let it continue for another 20 years. another decision not based on rationality but on (political? financial?) expedience.

    i cut my baby teeth on science fiction – i’m not reflexively afraid of technology but i cannot agree to one with such great potential for harm, that seems to be driven with eyes shut.

  11. Ian Cocking says:

    Mark,

    I think the problem is that most people in the comfortable west do not question where stuff including energy comes from.

    The environmental movement has demonised Nuclear for decades and now with Fukishima you can hardly blame someone for thinking “I don’t want one of those things going off in my country”. In Germany Nuclear is the new Jude, the star of David has morphed into the symbol for the atom. Yet what is the real alternative? in the absence of abundant hydro or geothermal, renewable energy will need some backup and with current technology that is fossil fuels. So rather than retiring fossil fuels renewables actually tie us into fossil fuels arguably at a lower propotion but the task of getting down to zero co2 emmisions will be nigh on impossible / unaffordable or both. Even if a new super battery could be developed you still need to massiviely overbuild your renewable energy infrastructure just to charge the batterys for the lean times and that is never going to be cheap and will have environmental issues too.

    When renewable energy advocates get their way and realise that CO2 emmisions arent actually reducing a well meaning but misinformed greenie is just going to demand more renewable energy. They just won’t get it. As more renewables = more open cycle gas turbines.

    The only option left to save the planet IMHO is for emmisions from coal to be outlawed. A higher authority like the UN has to mandate this and set a date so that the construction on new unabated coal plant cannot proceed anywhere in the world. When a Coal plant reaches the end of it’s life it must not be replaced. This will see a short term dash to gas but a time line for that also needs to be set. The only long term options for electrical energy should be renewable and nuclear. With Nuclear we will still be able to make Synthetic Hydro carbons for transport, smelt metals and continue with this civilisation whilst the renewables only path offers energy poverty/die off or the continuation of fossil fuels and all the assioated problems attached to their use.

    On another point I want to see Didcot & Draxx replaced with nukes when they are retired. I know the government is only considering existing sites for nuclear new build but there are only so many existing nuclear sites yet we already tollerate coal sites. We need all the clean energy we can get especially if we’re going to get clean transport. Which we will need as oil is only going to get more expensive.

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