Monday, May 30, 2011

The Absurdity of Germany's Decision to Close Existing Nuclear Power Plants

Germany decided today to close all of their nuclear reactors by 2022 (going back to an earlier decision made by the Socialist & Green parties.) While it might be hard to convince millions of people in Germany that they need to think twice about banning nuclear power, I'm hoping that I can communicate globally with as many people as possible to explain that banning already built nuclear power plants is a really bad idea. Were we all to decide to stop using existing nuclear power plants, the likely outcome would be some combination of stagnation and recession. Instead, I would like to live on a planet in which life and intelligence is growing. I don't want my kids growing up in a stagnant society that thinks they have already reached the top of mountain. We have so much left to accomplish, so much more to build, and so many more planets to populate. We need growth of life here on Earth and elsewhere. Nuclear power is a great way to help achieve our societal goals. France has shown us that nuclear power in the right hands is a wonderful thing.

I would understand if Germany were to temporarily shut down power plants that were unsafe. But this closing down of power plants seems completely idiotic because the power plants are safe, already build, compact, and don't produce any emissions of acid or greenhouse gases. Before March, nuclear power made up 23% of the electricity being generated in Germany. Germany produces roughly 600 Tera-Watt hours of electricity per year, so this means that roughly 135 TWh of electricity were produced in Germany in 2009. (The last year of data in BP's Statistical Review of Energy. A must read for anybody and everybody.) This is a not-insignificant amount of electricity. It's more than the amount of electricity produced in either Norway or Sweden. What would happen if Norway or Sweden were to decide to completely shut down their economies?

Germany's leaders say that are instead going to build new renewable power plants to make up for the lost electricity. But as I discussed in a previous post on this topic, Germany's leaders have also stated that they would like to reduce the total amount of electricity generation. Either way, I predict that the amount of electricity produced in Germany will decrease as they start closing nuclear power plants, and as well, this will cause their economy to shrink. (Using a Jevon's Paradox sort of analogy in reverse.)
So, let's think about what would likely happen by asking and answering a few questions:

First, where is the electricity going to come from to produce the wind turbines or solar cells? (I mean here all of the energy input: from the electricity required to light the factory, to the gasoline required for the employees to drive to work, to the coal used to make the steel, to the electricity used to run the phones and computers at the plant.) Are they going to buy wind turbines and PV solar cells that were made using Chinese coal? Or will the wind turbines and PV solar cells be made using Russian natural gas and Middle Eastern oil? What are the emissions from the fuels & power plants required build the renewable power plants? (i.e. same list as above: lights in the factory, food for the employees, transportation for the employees, coal for the steel, electricity for the production of silicon from silica, etc...) Is Germany going to limit the amount of electricity people are allowed to use? Is Germany thinking that it will survive with less electricity for each person?

What would happen when the power plants start closing and there is less electricity production? I suspect that the prices would increase so that the processes that are only affordable when electricity prices were X $/kWh will have to close when the electricity prices rise to Y $/kWh.

Then there's the problem that Germany is going to subsidize solar or wind. It's totally absurd for Germany to be using solar electricity. No country with so little sunlight should ever dream of paying people to put solar cells on their homes. More kWh's of work (such as electricity) will be consumed in the production, installation and maintenance of the solar cells than will be produced over the lifetime of the cells. This is a negative rate of return on 'work' invested. And here I mean all the forms of work (electrical and mechanical) that go into the production, installation and maintenance of the solar cells. (Only subsidizes will make it "economically viable"...which would only last until the German taxpayers realize that wind and solar energy is parasitic off of other sources of work, such as electricity derived from nuclear, coal or natural gas. The parasite can only suck so much blood or else it will kill its host.)

So, who is Germany going to tax in order to pay the subsidies for the renewable energy? They are going to have to tax somebody or else they are going to have to reduce a lot of government spending someplace else. This means that there will be less money, and this ultimately means that the real people to feel the burn from this policy will be those people who deal in non-gov't luxuries (those items that people can do without when the economy shrinks and that the government doesn't like to waste its money on.) This is the real trade-off:

Growth, luxuries and some nuclear power     vs.     stagnation, minimal luxuries, and subsidized solar/wind

Which do you want?  I vote for growth, luxuries and nuclear power!


  1. Unfortunately I missed this news. Germany is a highly advanced state, but why they decided to close all their nuclear reactor in 2022? What happened? This idea is very good for my student research assignment. Thank you for sharing this information posted.

  2. Jonas,
    Thanks for the comment.
    Switzerland is closing their nuclear reactors by 2034, and the ex-prime minister of Japan threatened to close their reactors as well. The new prime minister is pro-nuclear (probably because he was the finance minister and realizes what would happen if he shut down all of the nuclear power plants.) The problem is that the most popular politician in the current majority party is anti-nuclear, so this debate will probably continue in Japan in the future. (Reality vs. public opinion)

    So, it looks like Germany won't be the only country to close down their nuclear reactors in the not too distant future. This is a scary trend, especially since the number of people killed in nuclear accident (normalized per unit of electricity generation) is less than all other major sources of electricity.

    Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

    Coal – world average 161
    Coal – China 278
    Coal – USA 15
    Oil 36
    Natural Gas 4
    Biofuel/Biomass 12
    Peat 12
    Solar (rooftop) 0.44
    Wind 0.15
    Hydro 0.10
    Hydro - world including Banqiao) 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
    Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)