Future of Nuclear Power


The horrific news reports and images from Japan’s nuclear disaster are disturbing, yet it would be unwise to rely on the advice of the Cassandras in our midst. What is instead needed is a reassessment of nuclear energy in light of the following two questions: What lessons can be drawn from the catastrophe in Japan with regard to the safety of nuclear power plants closer to home? Moreover, what alternatives to nuclear power do we have, and how viable are they both technically and economically?

Current information indicates the Fukushima nuclear disaster was not caused by the earthquake. Rather, the severe tsunami, coupled with potentially insufficient safety systems, were responsible. While the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan was one of the seven strongest of the last three centuries (the most severe, a 9.5 magnitude earthquake, took place in Chile in 1960), Fukushima’s automatic shutdown system and back-up power generators, which were triggered due to the loss of external power supply, did in fact work properly. Rather, it was the tremendous force of the subsequent tsunami that led to the failure of the emergency power generators, and, as a result, to the overheating of the reactors. The possibility of a tsunami was certainly taken into account by Japan’s nuclear engineers, yet the strength of this tsunami was unexpected. It appears there was only one back-up diesel power system at the Fukushima plant, and that the reserve battery system, which served as a second back-up, was not sufficiently redundant in its design.

The strongest earthquake in Germany over the past several hundred years was 5.6 in magnitude, and occurred in 1911. Furthermore, a tsunami is an impossibility in Germany. Thus, in discussing the lessons to be drawn from the Fukushima disaster, the following questions are key: How strong of an earthquake could Germany’s nuclear power plants withstand? What back-up power systems do Germany’s nuclear facilities possess in the event that external power supply is lost? Furthermore, it is possible to prevent the failure of cooling systems due to flooding, loss of water supply, or an attack by hackers or terrorists?

Once these questions have been addressed, the next step is to discuss to what the extent the citizenry is willing to accept the remaining safety risks, particularly in consideration of their severity. For it is of little value to say an event only occurs once in 100,000 years if that event takes place tomorrow. Furthermore, we must also take into account what is perhaps the greatest unresolved problem posed by nuclear power – that of nuclear waste, and how to dispose of it.

In deliberating over courses of action with regard to nuclear power, we must of course consider alternative forms of energy. At the same time, however, we must remain aware that other countries – such as France – will hardly allow themselves to be instructed by Germany in matters of energy policy. The establishment of acceptable EU-wide safety standards would itself be a significant achievement.

Although the recent temporary shutdown of seven of Germany’s nuclear power plants is unlikely to threaten security of supply, Germany will nevertheless not be able to avoid the importation of electricity from French nuclear power plants. Thus, while the temporary shutdown has done nothing to reduce safety risks, electricity prices are likely to increase – to say nothing of Germany’s dependency on foreign energy imports. In any event, a rapid closure of all of Germany’s nuclear power plants would necessitate a strong expansion in power generation from fossil fuels, for which there would be little public acceptance in the impacted regions. An accelerated shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power plants in the broader effort to transition to renewables would not only lead to higher electricity prices (due to the reduced proceeds from nuclear), but could also potentially threaten the stability of Germany’s power grid. The risk to stability would be particularly acute along the country’s north-south axis, as most nuclear power plants are located in the south, and most green energy facilities in the north. With regard to solar energy, Germany lacks sufficient sunshine, and the lack of political stability in northern Africa calls into question potential projects for constructing large-scale solar facilities there, such as the "Desertec" project. The wind in Germany blows unreliably; moreover, wind turbines are an aesthetic blight on the landscape, and expensive to install offshore. The alternatives to nuclear power thus all have considerable drawbacks.

My personal opinion? We are going to have to live with nuclear energy for the next two or three decades due to its benefits and despite its risks – even if this makes us a bit uneasy. In the meantime, being more conservation-minded would go a long way.