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Climate change, nuclear power and security

Germany is a modern country that, for many, serves as an example of a functioning state. All the more astonished must be those who have observed our energy policy in recent years.

Not so long ago, when a pandemic did not yet dominate the world, there was one central issue in politics. Thousands of young people took to the streets every Friday to show their anger at politicians’ perceived inaction on the climate issue. Eventually, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old face of the movement, named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year 2019” despite criticism. The award certainly shows how much momentum the movement had last year.

The solutions of NGOs, governments, scientists and the young demonstrators differ fundamentally among themselves. Still, there is one thing they have in common: all strategies have a reduction of greenhouse gases, especially CO2, as their goal. In doing so, governments are faced with a difficult task. After all, there are interests to be weighed up. Without a significant loss of prosperity, one cannot merely close all coal and gas-fired power plants and switch to wind.  

A safe, efficient, CO2-neutral alternative that could produce a lot of energy, as well as having been tested by years of experience from different countries, does not exist. 

Except, of course, nuclear energy. To say that nuclear energy is a safe alternative is almost like calling water low calorie. Even renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric power plants, solar and wind power, tend to be inferior to nuclear energy in this respect. If you look at the data, it makes your head spin to think of the ideological battle that has been waged against nuclear power for years. The safety of energy sources is calculated by relating the number of deaths to energy production. For example, a 2016 study found that nuclear energy production kills about 0.01 people per terawatt hour. Just for comparison: with lignite, it’s approximately 32.72 people, and with coal, we’re talking about 24.62 deaths, according to a 2007 study.  This means that about 3200 times as many people die with lignite as with nuclear power – there are beautiful places inhabited by fewer people.

But how does nuclear power compare to renewables? In the 2016 study already cited above, solar energy comes in at 0.019 deaths per terawatt hour, hydropower at 0.024, and finally wind power at 0.035 ends. The research includes the traumatic experience of Fukushima. But how traumatic is it? One would think that the disaster would cause the numbers to skyrocket, but, at the time of the study, there was not a single death that was a direct result of the disaster – in 2018, the Japanese government reported the first death, one person died of lung cancer.

But what happens if we use a conservative, cautious methodology? The 2007 study cited above does just that. In the systematic comparison of energy sources at “Our World in Data”, both studies are quoted and compared. The authors of the 2007 study are quoted there:

“Markandya and Wilkinson (2007) include estimated death tolls from separate accidents (not including Fukushima) but also provide an estimate of deaths from occupational effects. They note that deaths:

“can arise from occupational effects (especially from mining), routine radiation during generation, decommissioning, reprocessing, low-level waste disposal, high-level waste disposal, and accidents. “

So the paper says that Markadya and Wilkinson use the LNT method (linear-no-threshold), which assumes that there is no harmless “minimum” and radioactive irradiation, but rather that the potential damage is linear to the radiation levels. This is a very conservative and cautious method, but we only arrive at a rate of 0.074 deaths per terawatt-hour of energy produced even with this study. 

One terawatt hour is about the amount of energy consumed by 27 000 people in the EU per year. If we assume the very conservative methodology, the converse is that we would need 14 years for one person in this group to die. This study includes one of the most significant nuclear accidents in human history, Chernobyl. It is highly probable that the processes that led to the super disaster in the Soviet nuclear power plant have very little to do with the responsible management of today’s nuclear power plants. Moreover, technological progress has brought about further safety improvements.

So if we take the less conservative approach, it would take about 100 years before we had the first fatality in this group of people. And this with a downward tendency, because we can assume that there will be further technical improvements in the future.

Against this backdrop, the German energy turnaround not only appears to be a defeat of politics, which cannot implement its goals, it is above all a failure of science and reason.

The targets set for the promotion of renewable energies have not been achieved. According to European statistics, Germany emitted 752.655 Mt of CO2 into the air in 2018. This corresponds to 9.146 t per capita annually. Just for comparison, France produced 323.279 Mt of CO2 in the same period, which is equivalent to 4.956 t of emissions per capita.

What about the reduction of CO2 and greenhouse gases? Germany was able to reduce CO2 emissions from energy production by 24% between 1990 and 2018. That sounds good, as long as you don’t know the data of your neighbour. In France, we read of a reduction of 27%. Between 2005 and 2015, Germany recorded a decrease of 8% for all greenhouse gases in this category. The model pupil from France can score here with 44% (!). Of course, there are several reasons for this. Among other things, France obtains a large part, namely 75%, of its energy from nuclear power. Unfortunately, there are plans to reduce this share to 50% by 2035, but this cannot be compared with Germany’s brutal nuclear phase-out. 

Steven Pinker, a world-renowned Harvard professor, is puzzled by the irrationality of the Germans. In a Spiegel Online interview, he argues that nuclear power plants are safe and that the German consensus on nuclear energy could soon be history. If you want to fight climate change, he says, it is simply irrational to forego a low-CO2 and safe option. 

It makes no sense to do without nuclear energy and at the same time continue to use fossil fuels, which are responsible for many more deaths every year.

In the USA, P.A. Kharecha and J.E. Hansen examined the historical impact of nuclear energy in 2013. According to their calculations, about 2 million lives were saved between 1973 and 2009 because nuclear energy was used instead of fossil fuels. They also try to quantify the impact of the German energy transition. For example, Stephen Jarvis, Olivier Deschenes, and Akshaya Jha calculated in a 2020 study that the Energiewende has cost 1100 lives a year.

It is really not easy to understand why, at a time when climate change is one of the main issues in politics, a safe and low-carbon alternative is being abandoned. 

Nuclear power is not a danger but an opportunity. Goals such as climate and environmental protection are an essential challenge of our time. The German nuclear phase-out harms Germany’s inhabitants and the climate, it also harms the entire world, as Germany has taken on a pioneering role.

It is to be hoped that the German consensus on nuclear energy will indeed be broken and that as few states as possible will follow Germany’s policy. Fortunately, the latter is unlikely due to the results of the energy turnaround so far.

Originally published here.

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