Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Nuclear Energy Debate in Germany and the US

Three Mile Island (Copyright National Geographic)
IISS-US Intern Marie Steinrucke has put together an interesting guest post on recent developments on nuclear energy in Germany and the United States.  I think she brings up some very important points in the debate.  

In Europe and the United States recent developments have once again sparked the nuclear energy debate. The results may be counter-intuitive to many people who have followed the discourse in recent years. The German public has been highly critical of the country’s nuclear program ever since its inception in the 1970s, but those who hoped Germany’s nuclear age was coming to an end recently experienced a disappointment when Chancellor Merkel passed legislation in the German Bundestag to extend nuclear plant lifespans by up to 14 years. Ironically, both proponents and opponents of the lifespan extension argue that their stance is necessary to build up renewable energy capacities in years to come. The right-wing coalition supporting the extension says that nuclear power is needed to support Germany’s transition to renewable energy sources, while the left-wing fears that keeping the reactors on the grid longer will halt innovation in the field of renewable energy.

Germans Protest Nuclear Power (Copyright AP)

In the United States, popular support for nuclear power has increased in recent years and commentators have predicted a ‘nuclear renaissance.’ Yet the failure of one company’s proposal to build a new plant on Chesapeake Bay indicates the difficulties currently faced by the industry. The Economist reports: “On October 8th Constellation Energy, a power company, gave up trying to persuade the government to reduce its proposed fee for a loan guarantee for a planned nuclear plant on Chesapeake Bay.” In an October 10th article by the New York Times the author blames the economic recession for the slump in nuclear energy projects. There has been a significant fall in the demand for electricity (4 per cent between 2007 and 2009), while the price of natural gas has plummeted, making nuclear energy less competitive. Furthermore, Congress has been unwilling to pass climate change legislation to reduce CO2 emissions, limiting incentives for switching to different energy forms. These factors contribute to the circumstance that nuclear energy is no longer financially attractive to many utility providers in America.

The pros and cons on either side of the nuclear energy debate are so complex that most voters choose to either rely on their representative or their gut feeling to shape their views on the issue. For some Americans nuclear energy does not even show up on their political radar anymore. The implications for climate security are predominantly positive in that the production of nuclear energy causes very little carbon emission compared to the production of traditional energy sources. However, the main argument against nuclear power, the problem of nuclear waste disposal, is also compelling. Scientists have made strides towards safer solutions to nuclear waste management such as deep geological disposal and space disposal. It is difficult to know whether nuclear power will find a permanent place in energy production or whether renewable energy technologies will eventaully render the nuclear solution passé. In any case, when weighing the pros and cons in today’s problems of energy and climate, nuclear power still seems persuasive as source of large scale, base load power in terms of climate security.

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