Nuclear energy has always existed within the back of our energy thoughts. Fears of safety, both rational and irrational have stemmed nuclear’s growth while the promise of cheap and oil independent energy have fostered its development. Perhaps because of these two conflicting forces, nuclear energy today is not much different than the nuclear energy of the 1970’s. Yes, newer computers and safety mechanisms have entered the scene, allowing for a greater amount of control and containment, yet the industry as a whole has barely changed at all.
If nuclear has changed, it has been a conservative one. Following the issues at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the growth of peaceful nuclear energy stagnated in many of the world’s developed nations. Then, last year following the tragedy in Japan and the Fukushima reactor meltdown, nuclear energy may have been dealt its deathblow.
For the cynics out there, the fall of nuclear seems to be nothing more than a free path for oil and coal to infiltrate and overtake every last segment of the energy market.
Yet, this may not be true.
In 1998 a socio-democratic coalition came to power in Germany promising to shut down and reactive all of Germany’s nuclear reactors. At that time, nearly 1/3 of Germany’s electricity came from nuclear sources, so this proclamation was no small feat. The goal was to have all of the plants offline by 2020.
Yet, by the start of 2011, political stagnation and vacillating opinions had essentially kept the nuclear power off dead. Indeed, only two of the plants had come offline and this was primarily due to technical (not policy) related issues.
However following the Fukushima disaster, Germany was jolted into action. Instantaneously the Merkel coalition closed 7 nuclear power plants and had immediate plans for shutting down 2 more. The original promise to power down Germany’s nuclear operations by 2020 was reinstated (with the goal of 2022 this time).
It seemed as if the door was closed on nuclear once and for all.
Is this a good move for Germany? In some ways, the nuclear shut down opens up the door for energy instability, highly variant electricity prices, and a destabilized and unsecure energy network as a whole. Not to mention, the nuclear shutdown would seem to increase Germany’s reliance of imported oil. Germany, a proudly austere and independent country certain does not wish for this.
However, upon looking deeper into Germany’s energy sector, there is a more complex picture. Initially, to replace lost capacity from nuclear shut down, Germany proposed funding two new clean-coal fired plants. These proposals were quickly withdrawn due to a mix of environmental and policy backlash.
As a repercussion, Germany has established a funding initiative for renewable energy sources designed to replace the nuclear capacity. These funding initiatives encourage Germany’s already strong wind market while providing seed funding and benefits to its fledgling biofuel market. The combination of these two impacts should assist in offsetting the loss of the nuclear program.
It would seem as if Germany’s removal of nuclear has given wind and solar a chance rather than simply allow for coal to encroach.
Yet, what of other countries worldwide?
In the United States no nuclear plants have been built since the Three Mile Island scare of 1979, yet this stagnation has done little to foster the growth of renewables. And, to add a new level of complexity in the nuclear question, a new nuclear plant in Georgia recently received approval to be constructed. (https://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/nuclear-plant-built-georgia-15551296)
How are we to interpret these trends?
Only time will tell. Yet for the United States, a country constantly plagued by energy hunger, closing our 104 (perhaps soon 105) nuclear power plants will be a difficult transition. Especially in areas such as New England where one third of the total power is nuclear, it would seem as if abandoning our radioactive friend is nothing more than science fiction for the time being.
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