The Scrambled Politics of Nuclear Power

We are living in strange times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative politician and until a few months ago, a longtime supporter of nuclear power, has vowed to shutter her nation’s 17 nuclear reactors and make renewable power, such as wind and solar, Germany’s dominant source of energy by 2030.

Meanwhile, staunch British environmentalist George Monbiot, the popular Guardian columnist and a former nuclear foe, has recently argued in a series of forceful columns that the nuclear risks are overstated and that ramping up nuclear power is the only way to meet the world’s rising energy needs and also reduce carbon emissions.

Let me acknowledge that they are not equal players. Merkel is a head of a state, who has the power to make government policy. Monbiot is a pundit, who has the power to influence public debate.

Still, I feel like I’ve entered a Bizarro World, where some of the characters, like in that hilarious Seinfeld episode, have come face to face with their opposites.

How did we get here?

Well, Merkel’s and Monbiot’s respective transformations were each set in motion by the recent tsunami in Japan and the resulting disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, which still has not been resolved. They have viewed the accident through very different lenses, however.

To Monbiot, an “old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami.” And yet, for everything that’s gone wrong, “as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation,” he wrote in March. In that column, he concluded:

Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

Merkel’s reaction was just the opposite, and it is startling, given that, as Christian Schwägerl recounts in this Yale E360 article, “Only last year, she [Merkel] fought to extend the operation time of Germany’s reactors by 12 years on average, against fierce opposition from the left and environmental groups.” In his piece, Schwägerl tries to deciper Merkel’s about-face on nuclear power:

In my view, the key to the chancellor’s radical turnaround lies deep in her past. In the 1980s, well before she became a politician, Merkel worked in the former East Germany as a researcher in quantum chemistry, examining the probability of events in the subatomic domain. Her years of research instilled in her the conviction that she has a very good sense of how likely events are, not only in physics but also in politics. Opponents of nuclear energy were “bad at assessing risks,” she told me in the 1990s.

Then came the March disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, which made the chancellor realize that she had been terribly wrong about the probability of a nuclear catastrophe in a highly advanced nation. Merkel’s scientific sense of probability and rationality was shaken to the core. If this was possible, she reasoned, something similar might happen in Germany “” not a tsunami, of course, but something equally unexpected. In her view, the field trial of nuclear energy had failed. As a self-described rationalist, she felt compelled to act.

“It’s over,” she told one of her advisers immediately after watching on TV as the roof of a Fukushima reactor blew off. “Fukushima has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany.”

Meanwhile, back in England, Monbiot had launched himself on a fact-finding mission to reassess the risks of nuclear power. He came to a completely different conclusion than Merkel. In a column last month, Monbiot says he “made a deeply troubling discovery”:

The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

Monbiot’s sudden embrace of nuclear power is largely driven by his concern over climate change. His is not the first high profile conversion. In recent years, Stewart Brand, an icon of the environmental movement and the founder of Whole Earth Catalog, has famously become a big booster of nuclear power. Climate change has also made a believer out of NASA climate scientist James Hansen. While I wouldn’t put him in the same boosterish category as Brand, Hansen is not shy about  talking up the need for nuclear power.

In his recent book, Storms of My Grandchildren, Hansen writes that, “it seems clear that efficiency and renewable energies will not be sufficient to allow phaseout of coal.” Like Monbiot, Hansen doesn’t believe that clean tech is ready for primetime–at least not at the global level.

But it’s also not ready to power England’s energy needs, according to a group of advisors to the UK government, known as the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Earlier this week, the group issued a report that said the fastest way to a low-carbon future for England would be to include nuclear power. It projects that by 2030, about 40 percent of the UK’s energy needs could be met by nuclear, and 40 percent by renewables.  As CCC’s chief executive David Kennedy told BBC News, “nuclear at the moment looks like the lowest cost low-carbon option.”

In contrast, Germany’s Merkel has put forward a plan that takes nuclear power out of the picture altogether. As Schwäger writes in his article:

The numbers that circulate in Berlin’s government district at the moment are staggering. Merkel’s administration plans to shut down the nuclear reactors “” which in recent years reliably provided up to a quarter of Germany’s huge needs as baseload electricity “” by 2022 at the latest. It wants to double the share of renewable energy to 35 percent of consumption in 2020, 50 percent in 2030, 65 percent in 2040, and more than 80 percent in 2050. At the same time, the chancellor vows to cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 percent in 2020, by 55 percent in 2030, and by more than 80 percent in 2050.

Is this realistic? “The new course is a huge challenge in terms of cost and feasibility,” Schwäger concludes. He does the math and finds that “three quarters of Germany’s electricity sources will have to be replaced by green technology within just a few decades, if the nuclear phase-out and the CO2 goals are to be accomplished.”

It seems to me that Merkel, in removing nuclear power from the energy equation, is perhaps making her ambitious plan more challenging and less doable than it need be. The no nukes strategy also isn’t necessarily a path that  some experts believe should be emulated on a global level. As MIT’s John Deutch said in 2009:

Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions.

In yesterday’s Financial Times, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute echo Deutch:

Put simply, there is no credible path to stabilising, much less reducing, global carbon emissions without more nuclear power. We are a planet of 6bn people, heading toward 9bn. Even with better energy efficiency, global energy demand will soon double, perhaps triple. Without nuclear power, the vast majority of that demand will be met by fossil energy.

If there is a middle ground “” one that includes nuclear and renewables, then it appears that Japan is vowing to stake it out. Despite the catastrophes it’s been hit with, Japan has signaled that it isn’t about to stop using nuclear power. But at the same time,  Japan’s prime minister has just announced that renewables and conservation will become two new pillars of Japanese energy policy.

Time will tell which of these countries “” England, Germany, or Japan “” have charted the quickest path to a low carbon future that can meet all their energy needs.

22 Responses to “The Scrambled Politics of Nuclear Power”

  1. As far as it’s influenced by these choices, I’d put my money on Japan.

  2. jeffn says:

    Interesting that Merkel has a science background. It could be that she is ordering her country to “test the hypothesis,” otherwise known as calling a bluff. You say you can run an industrial country on windmills and solar panels without nuke plants or coal? Prove it.
    I suspect she knows this turn in energy policy will never get past the planning/budgeting stage. The more likely result is a recognition that the green party’s ideas are indeed wrong and Germany can launch a new commitment to next-gen nuke plants to replace the existing ones. Or windmills and solar panels will remarkably begin to be effective and people will embrace energy austerity. Either way, she wins.

  3. Tom Fuller says:

    Japan has moved on other green energy options, such as solar and they really want wind to work–but haven’t really been able to make it do so as yet.
    But Japan is driven by a lot more than environmentalism. All of their liquid fuel supply is imported. Might have a wee impact on their thinking.
    But the same things that make Japan dysfunctional in many other realms of life–demographics, democratic deficit, tolerance of complicity with both big business and organised crime–will hamper Japan in environmental matters as well.
    Their population is both shrinking and ageing at the same time. As is their economy and infrastructure. So I’d bet against Bart on this one…

  4. Tom, note the “As far as it’s influenced by these choices” in my statement…

  5. harrywr2 says:

    In Japan,Germany and Britain we are talking about democratically elected.
    Democratically elected Governments must bend to the will of the people.
    Anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany has always been high, most probably a relic of anti-nuclear weapons sentiment from the Cold War.
    Japan’s anti-nuclear weapons sentiment has also always been high, that is offset by the French argument I.E. We have no gas,we have no coal and we have no oil, we have no choice.
    What is politically feasible in one location may not be politically feasable in another location.
    I can’t image US politicians being able to sell the population on 35 cents/KWh for electricity, there would be riots in the street. The Germans are already paying a 35 cent/KWh rate and it will go up and the protests in the street aren’t over electricity prices, they are over nuclear power.
    There isn’t going to be a ‘one size fits all’ global energy plan.

  6. Dean says:

    Actually, Merkel’s Christian Democratic party did poorly in recent state elections and the Green Party, for whom anti-nuclear is a litmus test, did very well. Merkel’s Free Democratic party partners are in free-fall, and she may need to coalition with the Greens more and more.
    While I can see how climate activists would latch onto stats like no known deaths (yet!) from Fukushima, cities have been abandoned because of this event. Tens of thousands (maybe hundreds) had to abandon homes not destroyed by the quake or tsunami. And these were often people who previously were the biggest supporters of nuclear because of the economic impact of the nearby plant. People who think that they can pick and choose statistics to minimize the impacts of Fukushima are fooling themselves. Those abandoned cities will be there, wasting away like the “Like After People” TV series. Powerful visuals that will overpower random statistics.
    I’ve read that in fact the people of Japan have never really been supportive of nuclear power, and I doubt that developed democratic countries will tolerate it. France is an exception so far, but Japan used to be.
    As to China, India, et al, if hundreds or even thousands of reactors are being built, how long till one of them has an accident and causes cities to again to abandoned for decades or more? Not sure about China but India is a democracy. And what of the resultant power shortages when they close those plants? Sure, coal probably kills more people _without_ accidents, but cities aren’t abandoned because of it. Distributed risks just don’t register, and never will.

  7. harrywr2 says:

    Dean Says:
    <i>Tens of thousands (maybe hundreds) had to abandon homes not destroyed by the quake or tsunami… Those abandoned cities will be there.</i>
    Here’s a link to DOE’s latest radiation overflight measurements for Japan. Slide #5 is interesting.
    Please identify the ‘cities’ involved, their populations and those locations where the evacuation will remain in place in excess of 12 months and the exact number of sq kilometers that will require remediation. Japans rainy season is in June.
    The facts will speak for themselves.

  8. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Since we’re talking about Germany and risk and also mentioning the TBI gang, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for Ulrich Beck’s work; in particular World Risk Society. 

    It seems to me that a credible GHG mitigation argument in favour of new nuclear power needs to anwser the following questions:

    what is the geographic risk profile (earthquakes, tsunami, tornadoes, etc)
    how quickly can it be deployed relative other baseload options (e.g. CCNG, renewables+storage)
    How expensive is it on a full cost accounting basis compared to other less carbon intensive baseload options
    What other benefits does it bring to the jurisdiction (e.g. energy security, employment) compared to alternative technologies

    I don’t pretend to know the anwsers to these questions, but I would suggest that it is unlikely that nuclear comes out ahead in all places all the time.  In that sense I think that both Monbiot and Merkel are being perhaps a bit too dogmatic in their positions.

  9. Dean says:

    Harry # 7 – Hah. I’m not your research department. I’ve seen numerous reports for cities and towns, with populations up to 70,000 individually, where radiation measurements were many times the legal limit. Even if the air becomes breathable sooner, people need to make a living, eat, drink, and farm. Except for some older folks for whom the emotional attachment to the land is too strong (and who probably wouldn’t be around long enough for tumors to develop anyway), most people won’t want to move back until well after experts deem it safe. Years after.
    Following from this and Marlowe’s post, I think that many nuclear supporters have their head in the sand regarding it’s limitations and weaknesses. To be fair, I think that the same is true of many advocates for almost every kind of energy production. Most energy types have some advocates who either ignore problems or underestimate the challenges in resolving them. Energy itself is problematic, at least in the risk-sensitive, property-value-sensitive, politically active wealthy countries.
    Plenty of nuclear is likely to be built in the BRIC-type countries and if I’m completely wrong, it will be proven so by their experience. God help ’em if the critics are proven right.

  10. Jeff Norris says:

    Harry is just asking to back up your claim like this for example
    Radiation leaking from the Fukushima plant has forced 80,000 people living within a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius to leave their homes. Many are living in gymnasiums and community centers.
    I am just glad he did not tell us the price of coal in China or Wyoming J  Regardless of that I agree that Merkel based her announcement on the recent elections.  Did not see this in the linked articles but Merkel’s plan is to offer cheap credit to build wind farms but will also require new coal and gas plants to be constructed.  Looking at this article I wonder if she is looking east for future power needs.,1518,754957,00.html

  11. Dean says:

    Right. The NY Times at says that 77,000 people live within the 12 mile evacuation zone. And I’m guessing people past the edge of it are leaving, particularly if they have young children or are planning to.

  12. Jeff Norris says:

    Chotto Matte Kudasai
    Your original comment did not come across as a guess i.e. “Those abandoned cities will be there, wasting away like the “Like After People” TV series.”  Take a look at this recent photo from Koriyama in Fukushima province I found on the web.  They also reopend the Mitusbishi factory.
    Or this article about reopening a day care center in Iwaki, I guess the parents of young children are sticking around.
    Also the NYT article is a few days after the crisis when it looked like a Chernobyl like event.  Also I agree that if possible and you have lots of  money you will leave the area and take sobo with you.  Nuclear is defiantly not popular.  Just human nature. 

  13. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    I will point out the misdirection in the BTI statement. “Stabilizing emissions” is a dangerously misleading phrase. Constant emissions will destabilize climate. It has been demonstrated empirically that introducing concepts like “stabilizing emissions” will mislead even graduate students at MIT.
    What is necessary to achieve anything that can reasonably be called stabilization is the reduction of emissions to near-zero and as both BTI and RPJ emphasize, it’s impossible to build nuclear plants fast enough to come anywhere near doing that job on a reasonable time scale.
    I find this very puzzling. BTI has hitched its wagon to the idea that if we just think happy thoughts, fund lots of R&D, and stop saying “climate change policy,” we’ll get green jobs and the atmosphere and climate will magically take care of themselves with no public policies that mention climate in any way. So if innovation is as capable as BTI claims at producing boundless cheap green energy fast enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, and if, as BTI also claims, we can’t decarbonize the economy quickly using nuclear, then how does BTI conclude that nuclear is a crucial ingredient in decarbonizing the economy?  The different pieces of the Break Through argument just don’t seem to me to fit together coherently.

  14. Paul in Sweden says:

    “We are living in strange times. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative politician…” Considered conservative by the standards of all red flag hammer and sickle flag waving Europhiles…

    Keith, Euro-conservatives hardly move to the point on the political spectrum of blue dog democrats in the USA.

    “Japan has moved on other green energy options, such as solar and they really want wind to work”“but haven’t really been able to make it do so as yet.”

    Tom, in the ’70s I was cheering Carter with the Solar movement. I shocks me that Japan has wasted so much money on wind/solar with such a dearth of pixie dust and ground Unicorn horn.

    I would love for Wind/Solar/Wave power to be practice. Heck Tom, I would love for Nuclear to be cost effective and have high hopes for Gen.4 but that is off in the future. My only problem right now is that eco-wackos are forcing impracticable solutions down the throats of the rest of us.

    I have no problem with cults of eco-researchers engaging in mental masturbation with computer models discussing “may”, “might” and “possibly” in one hundred years but when the half-hearted policy solutions cannot possibly resolve their least case scenarios cost the public so much with no improvement I have to say BS.

  15. Marlowe Johnson says:

    “The different pieces of the Break Through argument just don’t seem to me to fit together coherently.”
    me too.

  16. Tom Fuller says:

    Jonathon Gilligan, I’ve read Breakthrough and looked through their websites. I’ve read Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog and articles about the founders of the Breakthrough Institute.
    Your description of them and what they advocate does not correspond with what I have read.
    Your description really appears to be along the lines of “If you’re not with us you’re against us” politics that has gotten the consensus position in such trouble for the past decade or two.

  17. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom (16),

    That’s not my take at all, though I do think Jonathan is oversimplifying their respective positions.

    Also, Jonathan is a regular reader of RPJ, as anyone who glances at the comments at Roger’s blog will see (Marlowe, too, I think).

    I also think that in your last graph, you put words in Jonathan’s mouth–or ascribe to him a position that he doesn’t hold, without any basis.

  18. Tom Fuller says:

    If so, I’m sorry–as that has happened to me on occasion, I understand how irritating that can be.
    But surely it cannot be folly to argue that lowering emissions will take time, and stabilizing at a given level is a preliminary requirement, especially when drastic reductions are being fiercely debated.

  19. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @Tom: I don’t have truck with “with us or against us.”  I prefer arguing civilly with people who disagree with me because I learn more that way than hanging out in echo chambers. I believe Pielke, Nordhaus, and Schellenberger are sincere and honest even when they’re wrong. I’ll also say in your defense that you didn’t put words in my mouth, but simply said that my comment “appears to be” of that form.

    I also don’t want you to think that I’m saying RPJ and BTI think identically. RPJ is a fellow at BTI but thinks for himself, and his analyses and policy recommendations are more nuanced and substantial than what I see from N & S.

    Re: Pielke on nuclear power and decarbonization, see Climate Fix, Chapters 3-4, particularly pp. 113-16.

    Re: Nordhaus & Schellenberger on not mentioning climate change: See Break Through, especially p. 266 criticizing Tony Blair for “focusing the world’s attention on limiting greenhouse gases rather than on unleashing economic potential” and p. 268 where they recommend that Blair should have given a speech that did not mention greenhouse gases, global warming, or the environment at all. The discussion of deforestation in Brazil (especially the last paragraph on p. 65) also clearly claims that saving the rain forest requires adopting policies that have nothing to do with saving the rain forest—that policies whose motive is fundamentally about economic growth will do more to save the rainforest than anything motivated by a desire to save the forest. Their view on the relationship between climate policy and economic growth is similar.

    Unlike Nordhaus and Schellenberger, who advocate policies that pay no mind to potential environmental catatrophes, Pielke acknowledges that it’s possible we’d fail to decarbonize fast enough to prevent catastrophe, which is why he devotes a chapter to backstop technologies. Pielke is also very different on the motives and goals of an energy policy. In Break Through, it’s all about economic growth and only that. For Pielke, it’s a policy that tries to satisfy many goals simultaneously. It’s explicitly an energy/climate policy, not just an energy policy that happens to produce environmentally beneficial spin-offs.

    In short, I see Pielke as a pessimistic realist who thinks his policy is not going to solve the problem, but is the best we can hope for, whereas Nordhaus and Schellenberger are wild optimists who think hubris is a good basis for policy (p. 272).

    However, despite their differences, I fault both policies for failing to put as much priority as I would like to see on managing tail risk (This is a political disagreement that’s almost entirely about values, not facts or science).

    On “stabilizing emissions,” it’s folly to use a term that has been clearly shown to confuse and mislead your audience. See the paper by Sterman and Sweeney that I linked above or this one by Sterman (Science 322, 532 (2008)). Both find that even sophisticated MIT grad students tend to have an “erroneous belief that stabilizing emissions would quickly stabilize the climate.” Since the notion of “stabilizing emissions” is likely to be badly misunderstood by most people, I think it’s a really bad idea to use that concept.

  20. Tom Fuller says:

    Jonathon, thanks for your patience with me.
    I have some particular issues with tail risk, in that I think this is one area that has been abused, not by scientists, but by policy advocates on the consensus side, and has caused a lot of the reaction from skeptics. Over at Bart Verheggen’s site, a recent post had a commenter basically promising that methane clathrates were going to be the end of us all, something I think would require a bit more study before accepting.
    But the point is that it appears to me that a series of disastrous consequences have been trotted out before the public much in the way an ad campaign would be tested or run up the flagpole to see who salutes. Many of them are then just forgotten about, especially if they are contested (not disproven, just vigorously contested).
    I think the one that sticks in my craw is the claim about malaria spreading inexorably across the planet as it warms. How that was handled really seemed cynical to me, and I think performed a real disservice, as more plausible considerations of some animal diseases increasing their geographic range are now mostly ignored, probably as a consequence of how the malaria argument went.
    But these low probability, high impact consequences need to be considered. I just wish some of the considering would take place before the promoting…

  21. kdk33 says:

    Regarding long tailed events.  Aren’t there a wide variety of these? (asteroid strike, new, deadly viruses, antibiotic resistance, simultaneous volcanos, etc.)  These don’t seem worth worrying about – we can’t do much about them; the cost to try is enormous; even if we solve one, total risk isn’t much reduced because of the others.

  22. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Well said as usual.  The only thing that I would add is that I think TBI and RPJr would rankle far fewer people if they were more upfront about the obstacles and shortcomings of their alternative proposals.  RPJr touches on the latter as you say, but not enough IMO…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *