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Initiative for an International Renewable Energy Agency


Energy Autonomy
Energy Autonomy.
The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy. Earthscan/James & James, December 2006.

Feed-In Tariffs - Boosting Energy for our Future
Feed-In Tariffs - Boosting Energy for our Future. A guide to one of the world's best environmental policies. World Future Council brochure, June 2007.

 

logo german times.jpgArticle published in The German Times,           August 2008 

We can meet all our electricity needs with renewables

Producing nuclear energy is neither cheap nor safe. It’s time to pay more attention to alternative energies – and to promote them the way nuclear energy once was.
Around the world, there is much fanfare announcing the renaissance of nuclear energy. The International Energy Agency is even calling for the construction of 1,200 new nuclear power plants by 2050.

The agency considers that a necessary answer to climate change and says the move would also help to lower dependency on fossil fuel imports, as well as helping to stabilize fuel prices.

This argument ignores the many and serious risks of nuclear energy – which remain unchanged – as well as its true cost. It also denies the huge potential of renewable energies, in an effort to establish the fundamental indispensability of nuclear power.

The nuclear industry is the result of a gigantic machine powered by political subsidies and privileges. Everywhere, it gets tax breaks for nuclear fuels, exemptions from liability insurance, as well as favorable loans and investment subsidies. But that is not the only reason nuclear power is the biggest subsidy program in global economic history. Governments have already spent more than $1 trillion on the research and development of nuclear energy alone – 20 times what has been invested in renewable energies.

As costs skyrocketed and public opposition grew in the mid-1970s, the construction of nuclear power plants was largely halted. The dreams of expansion were over. In 1974, the International Atomic Energy Agency forecast that by 2000, nuclear power plants would have an annual capacity of 4.5 million megawatts. Today, 440 reactors provide 300,000 megawatts – a mere 2.5 percent of the world’s energy needs.

It is estimated that the current number of reactors will exhaust uranium deposits in around 50 years. Without an immediate transition to fast-breeder reactors, which would make uranium stores last considerably longer, nuclear power plants will run out of fuel. If their number were to double, not one of the new reactors would be able to operate for more than 30 years.

But the history of fast-breeder reactors is a fiasco. Their high susceptibility to breakdown showed them to be unfit for commercial operation. If the industry does succeed in making this kind of reactor workable, the additional costs would be incalculable.

Our nuclear waste is a 100,000-year legacy. What political and economic order can remain stable for that length of time? There are four more important reasons for not returning to nuclear power. As asymmetrical conflicts intensify, the danger of nuclear terrorism increases around the world – in particular, the danger of missile attacks on reactors.

Nuclear reactors’ enormous water requirements collide with the growing global water crisis and compete with the water needs of a growing world population. The surplus heat produced by nuclear plants is difficult to harness productively, which is why they are basically inefficient. And to be profitable, expensive nuclear power stations must operate at full capacity – something that is only possible if governments reverse their liberalization of electricity markets and guarantee the nuclear industry a share. The nuclear power economy is and always has been a state enterprise – sometimes openly acknowledged, sometimes hidden.

The most powerful argument against the nuclear renaissance, however, is the potential of renewable energies. There are already scenarios showing the possibility of supplying all our energy needs from renewables – using technologies that already exist. They form the basis of the latest speech by Al Gore, in which he calls for American electricity suppliers to make a complete switch to renewables within 10 years.

In the past 12 years, an electricity generating capacity of 30,000 megawatts has been created under Germany’s Renewable Energies Act. In 2007 alone, new capacity grew so fast that it produced 15 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. That equals the annual output of two nuclear power plants.

If this initial rate were to continue for 25 years, Germany’s electricity needs could be completely supplied by renewables. Germany has an area of about 350,000 square kilometers and a population of 81 million people. What can be done here, can be done anywhere.

On top of this, nothing can be implemented faster than the expansion of renewable energies in the existing central facilities. Highly-centralized conventional power stations can be replaced by many smaller and mid-sized generation plants. A solar or wind-driven generator can be installed within a few days, while a nuclear power plant takes an average of 10 years to build. The argument that we should switch to nuclear energy to protect the environment because time is running out, is nonsense.

Nor does the final argument in favor of nuclear power hold true – namely, that it is needed because renewable energies from wind and solar sources are not constantly available. No power grid functions without alternatives and storage capacities. The same applies to nuclear power stations, which also have to be taken offline for differing lengths of time.

Of course, that is also true of renewables, which have to be made available as a mix derived from different renewable energy sources that complement each other. In addition, there are many different ways of storing energy, such as using hydrogen or compressed air. All renewables (with the exception of bioenergy) have the unique advantages of having no fuel costs and producing no emissions, of being available from local sources, and of leading to long-term energy security.

The cost of nuclear energy is rising inexorably, while that of renewables is falling steadily due to serial production and technological refinement. We must overcome the unjustified technology optimism surrounding nuclear energy as well as the shortsighted pessimism about renewables. It is time to pursue renewable energies just as ambitiously as nuclear power was once promoted. And renewables do not come with an incalculable risk. The place for nuclear energy in the future is the technology museum.

www.german-times.com