Fear of nuclear energy is common in most of the Western world, but nowhere are more people more terrified of nuclear energy than in Germany. Following the German reunification, anti-nuclear groups mounted a campaign of fear that has been more successful than anywhere else in the world. The message was aided by the recent memory of both Chernobyl and of the decades of fear during the Cold War, when Germany was seen as the most likely battleground in a nuclear war.
In 2000, the coalition government of the German Green Party and Social Democratic Party announced that nuclear power would be completely phased out in Germany by 2020. In the following years, several nuclear power plants were closed as part of the mandatory termination of nuclear power generation. While the official party line was that the phase-out of nuclear energy would result in its replacement with renewable energy sources, the reality is that Germany instead increased both coal and natural gas generation capacity and electrical imports. Huge wind and solar power projects were built, but resulted in only insignificant base load power capacity.
As a result, by 2010, Germany was facing the potential for a catastrophic shortage of electricity. New coal burners and international transmission lines were not being built fast enough to replace the nuclear power stations that were slated for mandatory closure. It is therefore no surprise that the government announced changes to the planned phase-out which would allow for nuclear power plants to continue to operate past the initial limits.
Not surprisingly this resulted in a very strong backlash from both radiophobic Germans and anti-nuclear energy special interests. Still, despite the terror that so many Germans have been conditioned to respond to nuclear energy with, the extension seemed preferable to sitting in the dark or huffing down even more coal fumes.
Then came Fukushima. As public support for nuclear energy was already hanging by a thread, the panic and fear that came as a result of Fukushima seems to have pushed things back over the edge. Having now seen major losses in regional elections, the German government now seems to be ready to concede to a national phobia of nuclear energy.
Yet this time something is different. The pervasive lie that “green” sources like wind and solar can power a major industrial nation is no longer as easily believed as it once, and with the potential for nuclear plants being retired in the near future, there it’s no longer possible to claim that wind and solar energy will be available by the time the plants are finally decommissioned. In light of this, politicians are now starting to admit the truth: phasing out nuclear energy will mean its replacement with fossil fuel – coal and gas.
To some extent, lip service is still being paid to the “renewable” sources. That is both a political necessity and gives some measure of sugar-coating to the fact that this means more dirt burners. Even in a country terrified of nuclear energy, building more coal and gas capacity rubs enough people the wrong way that the claim that they are just “until renewable capacity is available” makes it a bit easier to swallow.
Germany debates how to dump nuclear power
(Reuters) – Germany has embarked on a state-sponsored shift away from nuclear energy toward renewables and fossil fuels as worries over atomic power have grown in the wake of Japan’s nuclear disaster.
Speaking after meeting leaders from the country’s states on Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel used some of her strongest language to date on the subject.
“We all want to exit nuclear energy as soon as possible and make the switch to supplying via renewable energy,” she said, adding that efforts would focus on developing power grids, renewable technology and energy efficiency.
Japan’s nuclear crisis has led to a volte face in Germany’s nuclear energy plans and an immediate shutdown of several nuclear plants.
In a document from Friday’s meeting obtained by Reuters, Merkel and her ministers laid out a six-point plan that includes a 5 billion-euro credit programme to support renewables.
It will also require building new gas and coal plants, Merkel said. “Gas and coal power plants were discussed… an accelerated exit from nuclear energy will lead to replacement power stations,” she said.
Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen, who mentioned wind power as the main pillar of the new plan, said the cabinet aimed to agree the main points of its efforts in June.
ENERGY FIRMS HIT
Also speaking at the news conference following the meeting, Erwin Sellering, prime minister of the state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern, said the year 2022 was the latest possible date for the closure of Germany’s last nuclear plant.
Germany generates around 23 percent of its power from nuclear sources and faces a supply squeeze if the switch is turned off before a 2022 deadline set in 2000 by the former center-left government of Social Democrats and Greens.
Shares in top energy firms such as E.ON and RWE fell on Friday in an otherwise buoyant market as uncertainty mounted over how the policy shift would affect them.
Physical coal and coal swaps rose by around 25 U.S. cents to $1.00, in line with stronger oil prices and boosted by Germany’s plans to leave nuclear power.
German utilities are facing a big challenge as their most profitable large scale generation assets, their nuclear plants, face an uncertain future.
“A bigger bang is inevitable and needed. Utilities have a lot to lose,” said Kepler Equities analyst Ingo Becker, who predicts both E.ON’s and RWE’s share prices could still lose more than 10 percent.
German firms are among world leaders in renewable energy and making equipment used for wind and solar power. The country gets 17 percent of its electricity from renewables and aims to raise that to 40 percent by 2020.
Germany does get 17% of its electricity from renewable, but only if you count hydroelectric power and “waste to energy” – which means biomass burners and incinerators. Unfortunately, they’re just about out of dammable rivers and burning more trash is not going to help things much.
Five billion Euro is not going to have a huge impact on solar or wind power generating capacity. Germany already invests close to four billion Euro on solar power alone in one year and billions more on wind and other “green” energy sources, yet this flood of copious amounts of national treasure has shown few substantial results.
In light of the obvious inability of wind or solar to pick up the slack from retired nuclear plants, another, slightly newer lie is now being used to make the burning of fossil fuels more acceptable.
German cabinet approves CO2 storage bill
BERLIN Ã¢â¬â Germany’s cabinet approved a draft law on storing carbon dioxide underground on Wednesday after months of debate as Europe’s top economy wrangles over energy policy following Japan’s nuclear disaster.
“Recent developments have again brought home to us the efforts we need to make to ensure power generation is sustainable, climate-friendly, safe and economically viable,” Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle said.
“I am convinced that CCS (carbon capture and storage) opens up important opportunities, both for the continued use of fossil fuels and to reduce CO2 emissions.”
The bill, which needs parliamentary approval and which implements a directive from the European Union, allows pilot and demonstration projects to go ahead ahead of an assessment of its viability in 2017, the government said.
It follows however months of debate with the governments of Germany’s 16 states, and includes a clause giving them the say on where the storage sites are located.
It also comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government looks to speed up the transition to renewable energy sources after the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Merkel announced a few days later a three-month suspension of an earlier decision to extend the life of Germany’s nuclear plants and the temporary shutdown of the country’s seven oldest reactors pending a safety review.
Germany decided a decade ago to abandon nuclear power by around 2020 but Merkel last year postponed this by more than a decade, saying alternative sources of energy were not yet ready to fill the gap.
The country’s 17 reactors produce around a third of its electricity. Fossil fuels provide around half of its energy needs and several new coal plants are either in construction or planned.
CCS aims to snare CO2 as it is pumped out from fossil-fuel burning plants, liquefy it and bury it underground, usually in disused natural gas storage chambers, to stop it escaping into the atmosphere and causing climate change.
So having admitted that the only viable alternative to nuclear energy is burning more hydrocarbons, and with the open ended statement that other energy source are “not ready to fill the gap,” carbon capture and storage offers a means of claiming that the plan is not to simply dump huge amounts of CO2 and other pollution into the atmosphere. Germany is currently building or upgrading several massive coal-fired power plants and has been steadily increasing imports of natural gas, even before the recent panic over Fukushima.
The construction of so many massive coal and gas burners, most of which have an expected service life of decades, has been at odds with the “green” image that Germany has attempted to cultivate. Politicians have made strong statements about the need to reduce greenhouse gases and create a more environmentally friendly society. Yet coal continues to be burned in huge volumes and coal plants are being expanded, not decommissioned.
For fossil fuel interests, carbon capture and storage is the perfect window dressing. Coal and gas burners can continue to be built with the claim that they are designed to accommodate carbon capture and storage “in the near future, when it becomes available.” Thus, just as with the promise of a wind and solar powered society, the emissions of power plants are downplayed with the claim that they’re only a short term gap-filler that will soon be eliminated.
The reality is that carbon capture and storage is a relatively straightforward, even if cumbersome process that uses technologies with little room for improvement and even less possibility of any technical breakthroughs suddenly making it economically viable. Fuels such as coal are burned, usually in a pure oxygen enviornment and the flu gas is then filtered of particulates, scrubbed of impurities such as sulfur, dehumidified, separated to remove nitrogen or leftover oxygen and then the resulting carbon dioxide is refrigerated, compressed and finally pumped under enormous pressure into a geological formation such as an aquifer, hollowed salt dome or depleted natural gas field.
Of course, there are a number of problems inherent to this process. For one thing, the separation, purification, refrigeration and compression of the carbon dioxide uses a significant amount of the energy generated by the burning of the fuel to begin with. Thus, more fuel is needed to produce the same amount of output energy and more carbon dioxide is created in the process. In the case of a large coal burning power plant, a huge amount of carbon dioxide is generated and needs to be disposed of. For every kilogram of carbon burned, approximately three kilograms of carbon dioxide are produced. Large power plants can easily produce more than one hundred thousand tons of carbon dioxide in a single day. At atmospheric pressure, this would be enough carbon dioxide to fill a dome stadium every few seconds.
Assuming that the expense, reduced output and overall increase in carbon dioxide (as well as fly ash, sulfur dioxide and heavy metal) production could be accepted, that leaves the obvious issue of where all this carbon dioxide can be shoved. Unfortunately, there simply are not that many places it can be put. Coal mines won’t work, as they tend to be far too porous to contain such high pressure. Depleted natural gas fields should be able to hold the CO2 at least for a while, but there are a limited number of suitable fields, and Germany has few if any. Aquifers may also work, but again there are a limited number suitable for this kind of use, and the integrity of aquifer storage could be compromised if the aquifer has been welled for water supplies.
Any geological formation used to storage large volumes of carbon dioxide also comes with built in dangers. A failure or blow-out of the pumping station used to inject the carbon dioxide could allow it to all come gushing out into the atmosphere. Should anyone in current times or any time in the future have the misfortune of drilling for water or gas in the area, they could easily also let out all the carbon dioxide. Unlike natural gas-filled formations found underground, the carbon dioxide reservoir would not be composed of multiple pockets, but would be one relatively continuous body of gas, making the possibility of an uncontrollable blowout more likely. Earthquakes could also rupture rock layers and allow the gas to escape.
Releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide from underground has greater consequences than simply releasing a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide can be toxic at levels as low as .5% (5000 PPM) and is deadly when atmospheric levels reach near 10%. A sudden eruption of carbon dioxide into the local enviornment can be catastrophic. In 1986, a local geological disturbance caused Lake Nyos in Cameroon to suddenly release 1.6 million tons of CO2 that had accumulated in the deep waters of the lake. Although the area was relatively sparsely populated, the cloud of carbon dioxide killed 1700 people within 25 kilometers of the lake.
It should be noted that carbon dioxide storage in the deep oceans has also been proposed. Ocean storage of CO2 introduces additional unknowns and potential dangers, however the language of the German legislation suggests a focus on underground CO2 storage.
That said, worrying about such dangers from carbon capture and storage is really not necessary, because realistically, carbon capture and storage is a pipe dream that is simply never going to happen and serves little purpose other than to make the prospect of burning more coal more politically acceptable. However, it does raise an interesting question: If nuclear energy and the material it produces is deemed so dangerous as to be absolutely unacceptable, why is fossil fuel with carbon capture and storage considered acceptable?
Not only do people die every year in mining accidents, natural gas explosions and as a result of coal exhaust, but carbon capture and storage introduces new unknowns and potential dangers. Is this really a better alternative?
This entry was posted on Sunday, April 17th, 2011 at 8:28 am and is filed under Bad Science, Enviornment, Nuclear, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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