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View from Brussels: Europe divided over nuclear future

There are studies that show that the cost of solar power is falling very fast, but the post-Communist societies of Central and Eastern Europe are sticking with the power generation they know.

People have a problem with nuclear, don’t they? I remember attending an energy conference where the most persuasive debater argued that people’s fear about life is constant and when the immediate needs of food and shelter are taken care of this constant anxiety finds its outlet in something more abstract – and he quoted nuclear power as something that kept people awake at night. The corollary of this was that the fear was not rational.

Some countries in Europe are more anti-nuclear than others. Germany has found rectitude in its decision to abandon nuclear power in 2011. Some say that this has been positive in that Germany’s decision has prompted China into a huge programme of investment into cheaper solar panel production, which has created a self-fulfilling demand, leading to lower thresholds for adopting sustainable energy. Other experts have said solar panels create their own problems with e-waste and that the dramatic claims made for growth in renewable energy should be taken with a pinch of salt.

A group of scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences* rebut the claim that the US can generate its energy exclusively from wind, water and solar energy by the year 2050.   They warn that studies reaching this conclusion used “invalid modelling tools, contained modelling errors and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.” And the scientists warned policymakers to “treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that rely almost exclusively on wind solar and hydro-power.” Are you listening, Mrs Merkel?

I think some of Germany’s neighbours believe that the country  uses bullying methods in the name of what would be loosely called politically correct ideas. But it’s the same old German empire, innit? Power abhors a vacuum and maybe this is the consequence of Britain withdrawing from Europe.  The Germans have looked with irritation upon their western and eastern neighbours’ continued use of nuclear power.

France is too big and important to dictate to, but Belgium, one of whose nuclear reactors, Tihange 2,  is near the border, has had to endure protests. For instance, the mayor of Aachen has called for the closure of the plant and last week there was a human chain of 50,000 people, standing hand-in-hand across the Dutch, Belgian and German borders, calling for Belgium to close down its ageing plants. Recent news reports revealing how Belgian nuclear plants had thousands of micro-cracks surely didn’t do anything to calm German worries, even though they are said not to represent a serious risk.

And then there are the Central and East European countries, who not only don’t want to let in refugees but persist in the modernist belief about the miracles of nuclear power. Nuclear power is said to be almost a religion, sources say, and there is little or no public discussion of investment risk or safety issues. The main problem seems to be who is going to stump up the enormous initial investment for new plants. As nuclear power is central to the Czech Republic’s energy policy, this topic is expected to be a major issue in the election later this year. Even in Poland, with its big coal-mining lobby, public opinion is strongly in favour of nuclear power. There remains a sense of prestige associated with nuclear projects and some argue such support can be attributed back to the Communist era, when the state ran the nuclear industry and surrounded it with an image of a futuristic plenitude for everyone. There were jobs, security, energy and stability for all, symbolised by the monoliths that were the nuclear plants. As we live in an age of insecurity and rapid change, perhaps the mythology of that stable past becomes ever more alluring.

So here we have a study in contrasts. The big power in the region, Germany, is marching ahead with renewable energy while the countries that were devoted to the social experiment of communism two generations ago now not only seem to be conservative on issues like the traditional family, gay rights and hostility to mass immigration, but, dammit, they also prefer the tried-and-tested energy supply of nuclear power.

Enthusiasts for solar power could, though, point to other reports such as one by Bloomberg New Energy Finance which predicts a 60-80 per cent drop in total costs by 2040, and the fact that solar is expected to  become cheaper than coal in just a few years, at $60/MWh. At some point after, solar will be competitive with natural gas.  The report also predicts that hundreds of billions of dollars will be invested in lithium-ion batteries, reducing perhaps the chief problem associated with renewables, which is their intermittency. The cost of onshore wind farms could also drop by more than two-thirds. Even so, the boosterish Bloomberg New Energy Finance report still predicts that nuclear and hydro will form as great a proportion of the world’s energy mix in 2040 as solar and wind: about a third.  

I have always been a supporter of nuclear power, without being an expert, mainly because the hostility of the sceptics seemed to be based on such emotionally and apocalyptically non-rational reasons.

But maybe, in so doing, I have underestimated the rapid innovation in solar technology driven by Germany’s about-turn after the Fukushima incident in 2011.  In that case,  Merkel’s Energiewende move was a brilliant piece of  political intuition that will change the world.  Will Merkel’s Refugees Welcome policy – which I believe contributed to the British turn away from Europe – also prove to be farsighted? I don’t believe it will prove to be so, but who can be sure.

*http://www.pnas.org/content/114/26/6722.full

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