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Prolonging nuclear power will hinder renewables

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

A new report has outlined why ending the use of nuclear energy matters for the development of renewable energy infrastructure. Electricity needs can entirely be met through renewable energy sources by 2050. The report states the last nuclear power plant can be removed from the grid in 2023 and the last coal-fired power plant in 2046. Extending the lifespans of nuclear power plants would damage vital investment interests and set back the switch to renewable energy by decades.

The study, "2050. Die Zukunft der Energie" (2050. The future of Energy, only available in German), concludes that nuclear is incompatible with renewable energy sources (RES) and that nuclear power plant lifetime-extension will seriously hamper RES-development. With a quick phase-out of nuclear and coal, Germany's electricity consumption could be covered 100 percent by RES by 2030. If coal and nuclear is phased out slowly, it will take until 2050.

The author of the study, Professor Dr. Olav Hohmeyer, is member of the German Expert Council for the Environment (SRU), who advises the German Government, and also vice-chairman of IPCCs working group on climate change mitigation. SRU has recently published an analysis, in which it concludes that the potential of renewable energy outweighs the current and future need for electricity in Europe many times.

In the midst of the ongoing debate over whether to extend the lifespan of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition has said it will raise 2.3 billion euro annually from the fuel-rod tax from 2011 as part of its austerity measures for the coming years. The nuclear tax plan is tied to an ongoing debate about extending the operating lives of nuclear reactors. Above that Merkel said she is in favor of the plant operators making further financial contributions in return for longer reactor operating lives to promote RES.

Germany's nuclear reactor operators -E.ON, RWE, EnBW AG and Vattenfall Europe AG- have warned that the government's plan to tax the fuel could make reactors unprofitable and they were forced to close he power plants (proponents of nuclear power thought that was a stupid threat).

During 2009 four of the 17 nuclear power plants in Germany were out of commission for more than 10 months, and that at times as many as eight of them were out of commission.

On August 30, Angela Merkel, coming off a recent tour of energy facilities around Germany, said in an interview with public broadcaster ARD that "on technical grounds, [an additional] 10 to 15 years is reasonable."

In a statement two days earlier, Merkel said renewable energies should supply half of all energy needs by 2050 and that nuclear and coal power would continue until supplies could be met entirely by clean energy. But that, many say, is a false argument: What is needed is more competition in the field of energy and that will happen if nuclear is phased out and allow investors to install new production capacity.

Electricity in Germany isn’t particularly cheap. In theory, the German power market has been liberalized since 1998, but there is little true competition. The four large nuclear energy firms produce around 80 percent of Germany’s power. This market dominance keeps consumers from profiting from economically produced nuclear power.

If the lifespan of reactors is extended, it will merely cement this dominance – likely leading to higher prices. On the other hand, systematically taking nuclear power plants off the grid would provide openings for potential competitors. Many municipal utilities have already prepared for the nuclear phase-out by investing in renewable energy. Keeping reactors running longer will snuff out their chances before they even get started.

A rapid conversion to renewable energy would have the added benefit of hindering a market-dominating concentration of power production. In the future, electricity creation will be more decentralized and there will be a greater number of providers. Proper competition ensures lower prices and hinders companies from developing a market monopoly.

The ‘2050. Future of Energy’ report claims extending operational life of nuclear power stations will not be as profitable as expected after all, because energy from renewable sources enjoys legal priority over nuclear and coal power. It is fed into the grid before electricity from non-renewable sources.

"Renewable energies are feeding into the system in a flexible way, depending on weather conditions for example," Bjoern Klusmann, director of Germany's Renewable Energy Association told Deutsche Welle. "Because of the priority given to renewables in the German grid, the conventional power stations, so coal and nuclear and other fossil power stations, have to react in a flexible way to the production from renewables. Nuclear energy is not as flexible as is needed for this future concept of renewable energy being the dominant part in our grid."

As the capacity of electricity from wind or solar sources increases, conventional electricity sources will only be needed to fill in gaps when there is a lack of wind or sun. But it takes about 50 hours to restart a nuclear power plant that has been completely shut down, meaning it would be necessary to keep the plant running at 50 or 60 percent capacity. Gas powered turbines, however, can be turned on within 20 minutes and can also be run on biogas. Other possibilities to bridge fluctuations in renewable electricity output include the decentralized approach of using micro-power stations or accessing the batteries of electric cars.

It was calculated that if the lifespan of the power plants were increased by 28 years, energy companies will have to come to terms with turning the reactors off some 15,800 times between 2020 and the date when the last plant is shut down. That would cost the operators between 21 and 80 billion euros (US$26.7 billion to US$101.7 billion).

So it is clear that the nuclear operators will try very hard lobby vehemently to reverse the law giving electricity from RES priority on the grid. And that would be very bad consequence of lifetime extension and hinder the development of RES enormously. That is one of the reasons for the fact that with a quick phase-out of nuclear and coal, Germany's electricity consumption could be covered 100 percent by RES by 2030. If coal and nuclear is phased out slowly, it will take until 2050.

The debate over extending the running time of Germany's nuclear plants has sparked a deep debate in the German parliament. Merkel said any extension would come in a form that circumvents Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat.

However, doubts have been raised by the interior and justice ministries that an extension of more than 10 years could be illegal if it were not approved by the Bundesrat, which is made up of the governments of Germany's 16 states. And the Bundesrat has a SPD/Green Party majority after the May election in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The government now faces resistance to its plans to postpone the phase-out schedule with nine out of 16 German states opposed to them, including Hamburg, Thuringia and Saarland which are led by Merkel's own Christian Democrats. Ministers from both North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate have said that they will press for a judicial review in Germany's Constitutional Court, if the government goes ahead without Bundesrat approval.

A decision on the policy is expected late September.

Sources: FOX Business, 26 August / Deutsche Welle, 26, 28 & 30 August 2010 /  Die Zeit, 27 August 2010 / '2050. Die Energie der Zukunft', University of Flensburg, August 2010, available at