Renewable energies, windfarm in a canola field

There are good reasons for California to phase out nuclear power

Of course California, like the USA, like Germany, like the European Union and like the whole world, needs carbon-free electricity. Global warming and the resulting consequences do not stop at borders; they are global. And these global and devastating consequences and their costs are the second part of a bill which we were given years and even decades ago and which we thought we had paid a long time ago – the second part of our electricity bill and that of our parents and grandparents.

In contrast to renewable energies, electricity generation leaves something behind which has to be disposed of – not buried in rock but blown invisibly into the atmosphere: CO2, which warms our climate and triggers catastrophic (weather) events. Just imagine if CO2 were not odourless. Would we really have disregarded the potential of renewable energies to such an extent for decades? Would not more people have stood up and demanded another type of power generation?

California needs carbon-free electricity, but not from nuclear power stations. That is why it is good and right that PG&E plans to finally decommission the 2-gigawatt Diablo Canyon nuclear power station by the end of 2025. There are those who believe that, despite Chernobyl and Fukushima, the need for carbon-free electricity could bring a renaissance of nuclear power stations. This is a fundamentally wrong way of thinking which, just as with the use of fossil energy sources, focuses only on the current generation, leaving our children and grandchildren limited – if any – room to develop.

60 % of carbon-free electricity in the USA comes from 99 nuclear power stations, most of which are more than 30 years old. The fact that they have worked without incident for so long does not, however, mean that they will continue to do so in the future. As we saw with Fukushima, an accident in one of these reactors will have an appalling impact not just on the region but on the entire country. The risk of an accident increases statistically with each passing year of operation. This applies in general but much more so, of course, in regions which have a high earthquake risk, as is the case with Diablo Canyon. We must feel happy that no major incident has happened yet and hope that this continues to be the case until 2025 and beyond when the power station is decommissioned and dismantled.

While electricity from nuclear power stations may be carbon-free at the time of production, looked at in overall terms it is anything but that and it is certainly not clean. Nobody asks or calculates how much CO2 was released in the building of the power station. Nobody considers how CO2 is released through the mining, processing and enrichment of uranium and through its transportation. And nobody in the world knows at this point where and how radioactive waste can be safely stored for the millennia to come, how much CO2 will have to be used in the process and what the costs will be in terms of the second energy bill, as in the case of fossil energy sources. Considered in overall terms – even assuming no incidents – the actual costs of nuclear power per kilowatt hour and CO2 emissions are incalculable. What is certain, however, is that unlike renewable energies, nuclear power is not carbon-free. For this reason alone a renaissance of nuclear power would be irresponsible. It would also be irresponsible because of the danger of accidents (particularly in earthquake-prone areas) and the unsolved question of the final storage of nuclear waste. Nuclear power is also not clean; discharges of hot water cause considerable damage to the environment – to say nothing of the enormous environmental damage caused by the extraction of uranium.

PG&E says that according to its projections there is no longer any place for Diablo Canyon and that it intends to replace 55% of the shortfall caused by decommissioning the station with true renewable energy by 2031. In terms of capacity that would be a good 1 gigawatt of renewable energy, equivalent in terms of wind energy to approximately 200 state-of-the-art wind farms. This is not overly ambitious and it is certainly achievable.

In Germany the transition to renewable energies is proceeding although there are challenges to overcome. Two thirds of electricity in Germany is currently generated from renewables. We do not expect demand for electricity to fall in the future. Coupling the electricity market sector (including electric mobility) and the heat market will create overcapacity. This will be a good thing and any overcapacity can be put to good use in the electricity market.

One of the greatest obstacles at present to expanding renewables is the failure to expand existing and build new power grids. The energy transition and the decentralised production of electricity involves the need to adapt the entire power supply system in Germany and renew large parts. Up to now power stations have been located in the vicinity of the major power consumers; in future power stations will be much smaller and distributed throughout the country. They will also not supply electricity on a continuous basis. Sector coupling between the electricity market, heat market and mobility means that fewer networks have to be built since part of the electricity can be consumed locally.

It is important to ensure, however, that security of supply is guaranteed as the production of renewable energy increases. There is therefore a need for an intelligent grid with intelligent, i.e. controllable, electricity meters at least for the big energy consumers. Up to now the production of electricity has been geared to consumption. In the new energy world it will be possible to adjust the consumption curve to the production curve. It will be possible, as an example, for cold stores to be cooled down further at times when there is too much power in the grid. They will not then need any power if a few hours later there is too little power in the grid. For the operator of the cold store there will be a commercial incentive in the form of lower prices if he adjusts the way he runs his cold store to comply with the electricity market.

The cold store would thus function as a type of energy store. This, along with other storage systems such as pumped hydroelectric and compressed air energy storage, chemical storage and power-to-gas and power-to-heat plants, will become increasingly important with the growth of renewable energy and in the context of supply security. In the transitional phase, security of supply can be ensured locally by small modular gas power stations.

In Germany there is a broad consensus in society in favour of the phasing out of nuclear power by 2022. The reasons for phasing out nuclear power for us are the same as in California and elsewhere: the lack of a solution regarding the storage of nuclear waste, environmental damage and the risk of accidents. The danger of an accident comes from human error in operating the plant, a lack of maintenance and wear. In the past there was also a failure to properly appreciate the danger of terrorist attacks. These dangers apply to the plant itself, to the energy supply for the region in question and to the nation as a whole. Phasing out nuclear power and changing over to decentralised renewable energy removes a central target of attack from potential aggressors. Thus the energy transition also contributes to national security.

There may be a consensus within society in favour of the energy transition and the resulting structural changes that are required, but the state needs to be proactive in the process in order to ensure that this consensus is maintained. This means that people employed up to now in the nuclear sector must be given prospects for the future and those regions which have benefitted in economic terms up to now from nuclear power stations must be shown other options for economic development. One way would be to provide incentives in these regions for building production facilities for storage systems, cabling, wind farms or parts thereof.

One possibility for ensuring people’s support for the energy transition is to encourage them to be actively involved in citizens’ energy companies. This means they have a direct stake in the commercial success of the energy transition. In addition or perhaps alternatively the local authorities as the real agencies responsible for providing public services and representatives of local citizens, should hold large stakes in these energy companies. In this way all citizens participate in the energy transition, not just those who can afford to invest.

California, like the rest of the world, needs carbon-free electricity, but it needs it not from nuclear power but rather from renewable energies in which citizens have a stake. Many congratulations from the other side of the pond on your decision!