Power Generation: Will Germany Win Its Post-Nuclear Bet?

March 7, 2012

One year after the Fukushima disaster, nuclear energy policy is moving in two opposite directions.  While much of the world, led by Germany, is embracing caution and winding down nuclear energy ambitions, the United States, Britain, France and Russia are poised to boost their nuclear estate, says Jon Entine, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently gave the green light to two Southern Company reactors outside Atlanta.
  • Britain, too, seems amenable to firing up nuclear capacity, although challenges abound -- the Centre for Policy Studies claims that by 2030 one in three households faces fuel poverty and dependence on foreign gas, unless nuclear power plants are built.
  • A new poll from Ipsos Mori puts U.K. public backing of nuclear energy at its highest in a decade, at more than 50 percent.

Conversely, polls show German anti-nuclear sentiment rocketing.  Why the difference?

  • The diverging paths can be traced to the 1950s when post-war military establishments among the Allied powers drove nuclear energy policy, the legacy of the close ties between the military, private industry and governments in those victorious countries.
  • In contrast, the collapse of the German and Japanese militaries provided a fortuitous opportunity for those countries to develop an energy policy that was not so closely tied to the military.
  • Without massive government funding of nuclear projects, nuclear never gained as much traction in Germany.

In spring 2011, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist, abruptly pulled the plug on half the country's nuclear capacity, announcing that remaining reactors would be phased out by 2022.  That policy poses pragmatic challenges, in part because of Germany's commitment to European integration, which includes merged power lines.  On most days, Germany avoids electrical blackouts by importing electricity from France and the Czech Republic, which generate much of their power with nuclear reactors.  Both countries have rejected German requests for temporary shutdowns of ageing plants on its border.

Most experts are skeptical that renewables can fill the shortfall created by mothballing nuclear plants, which have become a key part of the integrated European energy mix.

Source: Jon Entine, "Power Generation: Will Germany Win Its Post-Nuclear Bet?" Ethical Corporation, March 6, 2012.

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