Friday, June 03, 2011

German nuclear shut-down - what next?

Germany has recently announced that it will shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2022. This comes in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant, and election gains by the German Green Party in the key state of Baden-W├╝rttemburg. The Green Party is a major player in German politics, and supports the cause of denuclearization.

What does this mean for the politics of energy production in Europe and beyond? On the one hand, we want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Existing sources will eventually run out, and the carbon dioxide released by burning them is believed to be the key factor driving climate change. On the other, are nuclear power and renewable energy may be inadequate to meet the shortfall. Nuclear power, in particular, is fraught with difficulties. Not only are people fearful of potential disastrous accidents ('Fukushima' may eventually become a cultural keyword in the same way that 'Chernobyl' is now), but there are practical concerns regarding the disposal of nuclear waste. If we forgo the nuclear option, will wind, solar, wave, and other so-called 'renewables' be enough?

This seems like a good time to introduce an important book on the issue, Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air, written by David McKay, a physicist at Cambridge University. The whole book is available for free online, in addition to a 10-page synopsis for those who want to get the gist of it quickly. An even shorter summary has been written by him for the BBC website.

McKay's analysis, which is essentially a straightforward, but necessary, accounting of the relevant figures and facts, shows that relying exclusively or heavily on renewable energy sources would be hugely disruptive and intrusive to both our existing way of life and, ironically, to the environment. The main fact is that wind farms, solar farms, and the like are not energy 'dense' - they require large tracts of land to produce the same amount of power as a conventional or nuclear power plant. Given existing levels of energy consumption (the book focuses on the UK but other industrialized nations are comparable), there would be hardly any land left for other purposes!

Wind farming projects around the world, for example, are already running into opposition from local citizens who find the windmills, and the electrical pylons required to connect them to the grid, hugely unsightly. Their constant whir is also a form of noise pollution. Biofuels and solar energy harvesting, two commonly-proposed alternatives, would possibly squeeze out farming and natural woodland. Even so, they would not yield very much. The figure below, from Without the Hot Air, shows to scale the quantity of land required for biofuels, wood harvesting, and other forms of renewable energy, required to meet the UK's current demand (the last five symbols in the legend are not to scale, but the rest are).

Therefore, if nuclear were out of the question entirely, it seems unlikely that renewable energy, in the state of technology that is available now, would be able to carry the day. Realistically speaking, it is likely that the Germans will find that after the closure of their nuclear plants, the supply of energy from renewables will not be able to keep up and they will be forced to revert in some degree to fossil fuel, or to importing energy from neighboring countries.

Nuclear energy is something even Singapore has to take into account. Even if our country decides that the risks are simply too high for our island-state, we still have to consider the possibility that neighboring countries will adopt nuclear power. It is important to have a frank discussion of the risks and realities now, than to be enveloped in doubt and fear later. 

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