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Nuclear Energy Belongs in the Technology Museum

by Hermann Scheer Thursday, Aug. 26, 2004 at 6:25 AM

Nuclear energy is still too expensive and too dangerous. Huge amounts of water are needed in a time of increasing water shor-tage. Uranium supplies are limited. trillion was spent on nuclear research while renewable energy fell by the wayside.


Still Too Expensive and Too Dangerous

By Hermann Scheer

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT, 22/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, The SPD delegate Hermann Scheer is the winner of the Alternative Nobel prize and honorary president of Eurosolar. Before his election in the parliament, the SPD politician was a system analyst in the German nuclear research center in Karlsruhe.]

The end of the fossil energy age approaches. Its ecological limit comes nearer as the material reserves are exhausted. The advocates of nuclear energy smell the morning air. Some critics even join in the loud cry for new nuclear power plants. 442 nuclear reactors are now operating worldwide with a total capacity of 300,000 megawatts. Two and a half times as many will be added by 2030 and four times as many by 2050, says the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the stronghold of the global nuclear community.

The pro-nuclear argument consists of a twofold repression. Amid adverse facts, the economic advantages are praised. The risks are minimized or declared technically solvable. At the same time renewable energies are denounced as uneconomical and their potential marginalized to maintain the indispensability of nuclear energy.

Trivializing the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl is part of this argument. In ZEIT (Nr 31/2004), Gerd von Randow wrote that there were only 40 deaths and 2000 registered cases of thyroid cancer. These numbers come from interest-bound institutions. Independent studies like the report of the Munich Radiation Institute have identified 70,000 casualties including desperate suicides and expect tens of thousands of additional belated victims.

Offsetting the victims with victims of coal mining and fossil energy emissions is part of minimization. However both mass nuclear and fossil tragedies necessitate mobilizing renewable energy as the only chance for lasting, emission-free, harmless and cheap supplies.

The use of nuclear energy is the result of a gigantic subsidizing- and privileging machine. Up to 1973 the OECD-governments spent over 0 billion (adjusted to current costs) in researching and developing nuclear energy and practically nothing for renewable energy. Between 1974 and 1992, 8 billion was spent on nuclear energy and only billion on renewable energy. The European Union’s extravagant nuclear promotion is not even counted. The French statistics are secret today. The total state promotion is at least a trillion dollars with the mammoth assistance in market opening and incentives to non-OECD countries, above all the former Soviet block. Only billion is spent on renewable energy. Since 1957, the IAEA and Euratom have helped governments in designing nuclear programs. In contrast, no international organizations exist today for renewable energy.

Since the middle of the seventies, nuclear energy was largely burnt out more on account of massive increased costs than growing public resistance. The construction times have become shorter. The uranium reserves estimated at a maximum 60 years refer to the number of currently running plants. With twice the number, the availability time periods are inevitably cut in half. The growth calculated by the IAEA could not be realized without the immediate transition to the Fast Breeders that could extend the uranium reserves!

The history of the breeder reactors is the history of a fiasco. Like the Russian reactor, the British reactor achieved an operating capacity of 15 percent up to its shutdown in 1992. The French Super-Phoenix (1200 megawatts) reached 7 percent and cost 10 billion Euro. The much smaller Japanese breeder (300 megawatts) cost 5 billion Euro and has regular operating problems. Making these reactors fit for work will require incalculably great additional costs. The way would be barred without continued or increased public financial expenditures. The thousand-year nuclear waste question remains an unsolved problem with unforeseeable permanent costs.

Four additional reasons speak against the future viability of nuclear power:

- Their enormous water requirements for steam processes and cooling collides with the spreading water emergencies through climatic changes and the water needs of the growing world population.

- The excess warmth of the nuclear4 power plants is hardly suited for heat-power coupling on account of the mammoth costs for district heating mains for central nuclear power blocks.

- The danger of nuclear terrorism not only through missile attacks on reactors grows with the intensification of “asymmetrical conflicts”.

- The operating capacity of capital-intensive nuclear reactors indispensable for their profitability can only be guaranteed if governments de-liberalize again the electricity markets and block alternatives. The nuclear economy remains a (concealed) state economy.

All this would have to be accepted given the finiteness of fossil resources if there weren’t the possible option of renewable energy whose energy supply for our planet is 15,000 times as great as the annual consumption of nuclear and fossil energy. Scenarios about a full provision possibility with available technologies have been calculated repeatedly, by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US (1978), the International Institute for Applied System Analysis for Europe (1981) and the Enquete commission of the Bundestag (2002). While none of them has ever been seriously refuted, all are ignored by conventional experts.

An electricity generation capacity of 16,000 megawatts arose in Germany in the last twelve years in the aftermath of the renewable energy law. There were new facilities with 3000 megawatts in 2003 alone. If this introductory rate continues for the next 50 years, a total capacity of 166,000 megawatts and an equivalent to conventional capacities of 55,000 megawatts will result. Nevertheless it is a very widespread error to think in isolated substitution steps and ignore the increased efficiency potential. Renewable energy has undreamt-of advantages. Short energy chains replace long energy chains from the mines to the final consumer with losses of energy at every step of conversion and transformation. A relatively few highly centralized power plants will be superseded by many decentralized power plants. The infrastructure need will decline dramatically.

This way will be opened up by new energy storage technologies that still must be invented. These technologies will remove the supposedly permanent barriers of irregular wind- and solar radiation possibilities through electrostatic storage (super-condensers), electro-mechanical (flywheels, compressed air), electrodynamic (supra-conductor magnets) or thermal storage with the help of metal hydrides. Then energy-self-sufficient settlements and businesses supplied continuously only with photovoltaic current or wind power will not be utopias any more. Hybrid systems with alternating complementary power plants (like wind power and biomass generators) are other variants. The cancellation of ongoing fuel costs (except for bio-energy) and the electricity transmission costs that make up the large part of the current electricity price would be striking. The whole energy system including the present use of renewable energy will be revolutionized.

The fossil and nuclear costs inevitably rise while renewable energy becomes continuously cheaper through serial production and technological optimizations. In the last ten years, wind power costs have fallen 50 percent and photovoltaics around 30 percent. The extra costs of today are the lower costs of tomorrow.

Renewable energy is also the answer to the approaching crude oil and natural gas shortages that affect fuel- and heating needs. Meanwhile it is the official consensus at DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen and Ford that biosynthetic fuels or bio-ethanol, bio-diesel and bio-gas can be introduced more cheaply and quickly than hydrogen produced with nuclear power for which a costly new infrastructure is necessary. The potential could satisfy the fuel need of the world as explained at the world biomass conference in Rome in May 2004. Energy-efficient solar construction could supply complete houses with heating and cooling energy. In Germany, there are already 3000 houses that do not need foreign energy. The Reichstag in Berlin is supplied with 85 percent renewable energy.

The time has come to overcome the structural-conservative blindness and the faint-hearted technology pessimism toward renewable energy. Renewable energy must be ambitiously explored and promoted in politics, science and technology as nuclear power was once promoted. The technological-economic optimization of renewable energy is easier to realize than nuclear technology and avoids incalculable risks. The future of the nuclear-fossil energy age – sooner than later – belongs in the technology museum.

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