Editorial: In Germany, the clamor for a rapid end to nuclear power ignores a long list of consequences, from wind turbines in forests and to slowing down on the autobahn.
Anti-nuclear protesters in Germany (2e14)
Germany’s energy policy has three objectives: security, efficiency and environmental protection. This is law, enshrined in the preamble to the German Energy Industry Act. In the past week this oft-cited trio of goals has become a quartet, at least informally. Germany’s energy, some policy makers now insist, should also be free of nuclear power.
For days now, countless policy documents, blueprints and reports have been circulating in political Berlin, all claiming to show the quickest way for Germany to rid itself of its nuclear industry. Most of these proposals rely on the rapid expansion of renewable energies such as wind and solar power.
These reports are rarely read, but their headlines are memorable: “Energy from 100 percent renewable sources is feasible.” The statement alone seems sufficient for many people to make their minds up once and for all. But nobody is asking about the preconditions, the costs and the consequences of the proposed strategies.
Why should they? If this is going to go ahead, then why not just do away with the nuclear power plants, no matter what the cost? This impulse is understandable in the face of the nuclear disaster in Japan. No one wants to be sitting under a nuclear sword of Damocles, no matter how small the risk of a similar disaster on German soil may be.
There’s no doubt that a phase out of nuclear power in Germany is feasible. However, those wanting to do that must be prepared to accept the consequences. Unfortunately, no one is yet offering a precise idea of what those consequences are. Nor is it clear how the proposed compensatory measures will be implemented and enforced.
What do biofuels have to do with nuclear power?
As demonstrated recently by the fiasco of the introduction in Germany of the E10 biofuel, individual compensatory measures may not be easy to implement. What do biofuels have to do with nuclear power? Very simply put: when it comes to emissions, electricity supply and transport are two parts of a larger overall system.
Nuclear power plants currently help Germany save about the same amount of CO2 every year as Germany’s automobiles emit. So those who want to shut down Germany’s largest source of CO2-free energy must be prepared to accept tougher climate protection measures in other areas.
And this is where we get into the nitty gritty, as a glance at the Green Party’s “Energy 2050” plan shows. The proposal calls for a 120 kilometer per hour speed limit on German highways and an 80 kph limit on state roadways. The plan also states that 15 percent of all fuel must come from biofuels by 2020 – say hello to E10. Additionally, there are plans to burden air traffic with taxes on kerosene and CO2 duties. That would mean the end of the burgeoning low-cost airline industry as we know it.
Previous distance and height limits for wind turbines, furthermore, will be scrapped. Wind farms will edge ever closer to villages and towns. There will even be windmills built in forests and nature reserves.
Some consider all that both doable and bearable. It is "always better than dying of radiation sickness," as users on internet forums have pointed out. But it is questionable whether all these individual measures will be enforceable against private interests. Just last year an attempt by the federal government to make standard the zero-energy house policy – and force property owners to commit to costly renovations – sparked a revolt by homeowners and tenants.
Reason to be doubtful
Doing away with nuclear power means quickly replacing a quarter of Germany’s electricity supply. Yet in recent weeks, the attempt to introduce the E10 bio-fuel in Germany has come under threat from a boycott by motorists. Environmentalists, meanwhile, continue their protests against the construction of reservoirs in the Black Forest – even though they are urgently needed for storing energy from renewable sources.
Will the population now suddenly accept such measures after Fukushima? There’s reason to be doubtful. Once the memory of the Japanese disaster begins to fade, worries about climate change or demands for employment will be pushed to the fore. By that point, the financial costs of converting the energy system may have grown to such proportions that the U-turn on energy could morph into a social issue.
The Green Party’s energy plan also deals with risks facing "social groups impoverished due to rising energy prices." The party aims to establish “funds” to compensate low-income households and distribute subsidies and incentives. Is that money to come from public coffers?
The lesson of the E10 fiasco is that costly cuts are only politically feasible when the overall concept behind them is right. So, are the proposed transformations in the energy supply really plausible? The Greens base their prognoses on the assumption that electricity consumption in Germany can be cut 12 percent by 2020.
So far, however, trends towards larger living spaces, an increase in the number of single households, electronic appliances and entertainment devices have off-set all political attempts at energy conservation. Apparently unable to do so themselves, consumers say "industry" should save more energy. But that argument overlooks the fact that Germany is one of the three most energy-efficient economies in the world.
Can German electricity consumption realistically be reduced by 12 percent when – during the same time frame – there are plans to put 2 million electric cars on the roads? It is unlikely that such an ambitious goal is feasible without stringent regulatory economic measures, and without tenable restrictions on household consumption.
We need more time
There is an alternative to all this: that we give ourselves more time. The costs associated with the nuclear phase-out will be proportionally higher depending on how quickly it is implemented. A rash and rapid change in the energy supply system carries at its core the seeds of political failure, due to the high costs, both foreseeable and hidden.
Alternatively, we could pursue a deliberate, prudent course in the switch over to renewable energy sources. In this way success would be more sustainable because it takes into account the economic and social consequences associated with transforming the system. The federal government would be well advised to start facing up to the inherent challenges of any rapid turnabout on nuclear power.
Read the original article in German.