Article published as an extract of Hermann Scheer: Energy Autonomy. The Economic, Social and Technological Case for Renewable Energy, December 2006
“Solar or nuclear” was the title of a debate on Austrian television I conducted several years ago with a well-known professor of atomic physics. The professor was not one of those members who likes to whitewash the risks of nuclear energy. But he was convinced of the indispensability of nuclear energy. He regarded renewable energy as something that (unfortunately) did not have enough usable potential to satisfy people’s energy needs. His remarks on the subject amounted to a grab bag of grotesque assumptions, all of which were easy to refute with a few empirical facts – like his assertion that the energy expended on producing a solar facility would be higher than its energy output. After the broadcast he told me in a voice that was both moved and moving: “Measured by what you have said, my professional life was misguided.”
During the 1950s, virtually an entire young generation of scientists came to believe in a future if we succeeded in banishing the threat of the atom bomb and securing instead a role for the “peaceful use of nuclear energy.” The philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote in his book The Principle of Hope: “A few hundred pounds of uranium and thorium are enough to make the Sahara disappear, to transform northern Canada, Greenland, and the Antarctic into the Riviera.” Bloch gave no thought as to which direction the water might be heading as it melted and left the polar regions. Nuclear energy seduced people into entertaining hypertrophic notions about how all the limitations and troubles afflicting humankind could be surmounted for good. The “Russell-Einstein Manifesto” declared in 1954: “Remember your humanity and forget everything else. If you can do this, then the way is open to a new paradise; if not, it will mean the end of life altogether.” There seemed to be only a choice between nuclear hell and nuclear paradise. The promise of nuclear energy was regarded as an immense unfolding of productive forces that would bring adequate prosperity to people everywhere and radically shorten the pathway from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.
Because of what actually happened at Chernobyl, the promises turned into nightmares. But what has remained are the national and international structures of the nuclear industry, which are struggling to survive and will not settle for the residual chores of managing atomic energy’s phase-out: On the world stage the relevant structure is the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA, founded in 1957), and in the European arena it is the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM). Also left over are several large nuclear research institutes. Another residual structure is the budgetary priority accorded to nuclear energy in the field of energy research; and then there is the privilege, unprecedented in world history, that lets major nuclear accidents be insured by the states, because the risks are too high for any private insurance company. And a leftover is the mental habit that makes a future bereft of nuclear power plants strike so many people, especially scientists and technicians, as unreal. Because nobody can turn the clock back on knowledge that is already out there, nuclear energy is a fact that cannot be thought away, so it is said. The world, according to this view, must therefore learn to live with nuclear power plants over the long run.
This is exactly how people continue to talk, about nuclear weapons: These too, according to their advocates, are a reality that can no longer be eliminated, which is why we must learn to “live with the bomb.” Nuclear deterrence was declared a unique means for preventing war, which in the future would deter anyone from ever starting a war again. The attempt is made to discourage legitimate appeals and initiatives for a supervised nuclear disarmament world-wide. Deterrence created intense ideological enemy images on both sides of the Cold War: Better dead than red or better dead than capitalist. And, coming soon to a present political theater: Better Western than Islamic, or vice versa?
In spite of all the emphasis on how nuclear arms have a peacekeeping effect, an attempt was undertaken to prevent additional countries from acquiring the bomb. The political instrument used to this end was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was meant to prevent the emergence of additional nuclear countries, in return for which it would pave the way for the “peaceful use of nuclear energy” worldwide. States with nuclear weapons committed themselves in this treaty to nuclear disarmament – an obligation that has never been implemented. States without nuclear weapons have committed themselves to renouncing nuclear armament, but they simultaneously obtain the right to assistance with civilian uses of nuclear energy. In Article IV of the NPT it says: “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.”
This is meant to draw a clear line of demarcation between military and civilian uses: Fencing in of one kind of use, expansion of another. The treaty became the working foundation of the IAEA. But the reality shows: There is a permeable line separating peaceful and military uses of nuclear power.
The history of the IAEA demonstrates that is not possible to talk about nuclear energy and remain silent about nuclear weapons. For a clean division between military and civilian use has become more difficult than ever. Nobody even tried to use the chance of the epochal shift of 1990/91 for an initiative towards nuclear disarmament worldwide. The argument that complete disarmament was rendered impossible owing to the worldwide dissemination of knowledge about how to build atomic weapons is just an excuse. Look to the chemical weapons disarmament, a treaty whose observance is substantially harder to supervise because there are many more possibilities for manufacturing chemical than atomic weapons. The review-conference of the NPT from 2000 in New York extended the former time limit, but only because the Clinton administration agreed to end all nuclear weapons tests as a first step towards a global atomic disarmament. Clinton’s willingness to end testing has since been rescinded by his successor Bush Jr., who has even taken official steps to develop new atomic weapons (“mini-nukes”). Because a new ideological world conflict in now brewing in the form of an Islamic-Western Kulturkampf, there is simultaneously a growing motivation for Muslim states to acquire nuclear arms. The result is that the Review-conference in 2005 ended without any substantial consensus.
Today the path to nuclear armament always goes by way of civilian use: With the backing of the NPT, it is possible to camouflage preparations for nuclear armament. In the international arms control debate it used to be said, and quite rightly, that what matters more than anything else is the potential – and not just an assessment of whatever intentions the current government may harbor. The current government may be entirely credible and not have the slightest intention of converting its civilian nuclear program into a military one. But what will be done by the next government if it already has a technological potential for nuclear weapons ready to hand? At that point future atomic powers would only need to imitate the fine example that others have set for them. Apart from the United States and the Soviet Union, all of today’s nuclear powers – including France and Great Britain – started out on the “peaceful use” track and only acknowledged their military intentions at the “last minute” of their transition to full-fledged nuclear armament.
If for no other reason than this, propagandizing a renaissance for nuclear energy is hair-raisingly irresponsible. At a minimum, the prerequisite for a country to use nuclear energy is stability in that state’s domestic politics and international relations. In how many of the world’s countries can these be guaranteed and permanently maintained? The world situation is anything but stable. The bitter irony of nuclear history might some day turn out to be the story of how the wishful thinking of the 1950s – “no” to nuclear weapons, but “yes” to so-called peaceful use of atomic energy – turned into the exact opposite: ever fewer nuclear power plants but in exchange for this more nuclear-armed countries than there are today.
There can be no doubt that nuclear physics is one of the most demanding scientific disciplines. The further along one is on the nuclear pathway, up to and including nuclear fusion, the greater is the respect accorded by public to the outstanding scientific and technical achievement. It would seem inconceivable for this technological marvel not to have some social utility. This may be the reason why, to this day, nuclear fusion has been sheltered from the withering critique directed against nuclear energy, as if the one has nothing to do with the other. That is the reason why, to this day, nuclear physicists and their institutions can afford to keep proclaiming one novel achievement after another in nuclear technology – promises that, only a little later, turn out to be completely irredeemable. Their broken promises are, nevertheless, usually attested to have greater realism about the future than is the case with ambitious future-oriented projects using renewable energy that have already proven they can work.
At regular intervals the atomic protagonists launch a renaissance in nuclear energy, by using a “dramaturgy of risk” in the form of a “competition to repress thoughts about major risks”. They “no longer deny” the nuclear danger – but “they proclaim that other dangers are even greater”. This is a way to enhance the opportunities for nuclear energy all over again, and it might even turn out that the environmental movement, yesterday’s opposition, will become tomorrow’s involuntary ally. It is against this psychological background that the campaign for a “renaissance” of nuclear energy is taking place, in a manner that is starting to impress political institutions and the media once more. The three elements of this campaign are:
• the promise of new reactors with lower accident risks,
• the global climate catastrophe,
• and the assertion that there is no opportunity for replacing fossil energy unless it involves nuclear energy.
The new pro-atomic campaign demonstrates how fatal the impact can be on public awareness, as well as on the consciousness of political and economic decision-makers, when the aims and opportunities of switching to renewable energy are not articulated aggressively enough. This lack of opposition clears the way for assertions like those made by the authors of a June 2004 article (“Back to nuclear power”) that appeared in the German magazine Stern: “A quick salvation is not going to come from nuclear energy. Its problems from the past will not be solved, nor will its plans for the future be available right away – should they even work as promised. To dispense with nuclear power altogether and for all time, however, also seems presumptuous. What we are left with, then, are plague and cholera: atmospheric warming and the risks of nuclear technology. What we are looking for is medication against plague and cholera.”
In the 1950s atomic energy won broad support because it was portrayed in glowing colors as a great historical prospect, as a project for all humankind. As late as 1974 the IAEA was promising that 4.45 million megawatts of nuclear power capacity would be installed by the year 2000. That is almost double the total capacity installed for electricity production worldwide today. The “nuclear community” applied no self-restraint of any kind, although they have constantly had to scale back their prognosis ever since.
In 1976 the capacity forecast went down to just 2.3 million MW, and by 1978 it had declined to a mere 800,000 MW. And then came April 26, 1986, the date of the Chernobyl accident. Today there are actually 439 nuclear power facilities worldwide, operating at a total capacity of around 300,000 MW and distributed across 32 countries.
For the “higher class” of atomic reactors (the fast breeders), the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Center predicted in 1965 that installed capacity would come to 80,000 MW in the Federal Republic alone, and 450,000 MW were projected for the United States in 1974 by the Atomic Energy Commission – both projections for the year 2000. And all those failed predictions about the nuclear fusion reactor are also lined up along up an endless chain: When the UN sponsored a nuclear conference at Geneva in 1955, the first fusion reactor was announced for 1975. Today, 50 years later, the fusion reactor is heralded for 2060. Although the date for delivering on this promise keeps moving further and further ahead, the funds keep flowing copiously.
The latest projection from the IAEA, which is the basis for the proclamations of an atomic renaissance, is even cautious compared to earlier projections. Specific decisions about individual projects are invoked as evidence: like the decision that a new reactor is going to be built in Finland; that France has announced new plant construction for 2007, with facilities that will run for 60 years and replace all of today’s atomic reactors; that there are current plans to built 27 new plants worldwide, 18 of them in Asia; and that the United States is extending the officially approved life span for 56 of its 102 reactors from 40 to 60 years. In a parallel development, the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe are being downplayed. The method of soft-pedaling Chernobyl’s damage includes miscalculating the number of victims by setting them against those who have suffered from fossil energy emissions and coal mining. In order to put the alleged economic advantages of nuclear power in a more favorable light, not a word is said about how its economic foundation was and remains a machinery of political subsidies and privileges of the first order.
In addition to tax-exemption for nuclear fuels and release from liability obligations, the companies building nuclear power plants have received preferential credit and, in many cases, investment grants of unknown amounts. From the 1950s to 1973, the OECD countries spent over 150 billion Dollars (in current prices) on research and development in nuclear energy – but practically nothing, by contrast, on renewable energy. Between 1974 (when the International Energy Agency started collecting data) and 1992, it was again 168 billion – for renewable energy, by contrast, the figure came to just 22 billion. The EU’s opulent promotion of nuclear energy is not even included in this count, and the French figures remain secret to this day. Together with the grants provided by non-OECD countries, especially from the former Eastern bloc, total subsidization worldwide comes to at least a trillion Dollars; for renewable energy, by contrast, subsidies amount to 40 billion at most over the last 30 years, including market introduction programs. And, not to forget: The calculation does not include police security measures and expenditures for university institutes or for basic financing of research centers.
By the mid-1970s nuclear energy had largely been thwarted, more as a result of massive cost overruns than because of growing resistance. Since then, the boundary lines limiting its expansion have been drawn ever more tightly. Estimates that uranium deposits will only last a maximum of just 60 years are based on consumption-figures from facilities currently running. Without an immediate transition to fast breeder reactors, which could stretch the fissionable material by a factor of 60, it would be impossible to have any kind of comprehensive expansion in nuclear energy. Yet the history of the breeder reactor is a fiasco. Thus far, these reactors’ high costs and vulnerability to breakdown have made them unsuitable for commercial operation.
Germany’s 300 megawatt breeder at Kalkar was started in 1972 and then abandoned in 1991 – after 19 years of construction that cost seven billion marks (25 times the original estimate). An analogous project planned for the U.S. was never implemented. During the start of a parallel Japanese project in 1995 a major accident occurred. The world’s only large-sized breeder power plant ever put into operation, the 1200 megawatt Superphenix that France started in 1986, was shut down in 1997; in ten years of operation it produced a volume of electricity that corresponded to seven per cent of its capacity utilization. All that remains is a 600 MW Russian breeder plant. In the mid-1980s construction also commenced in the Urals on two commercial 800 MW breeders, which were supposed to go into operation in 2000 but were also actually abandoned. This pitiful end to the race for breeders is ultimately attributable to the enormous technical complexity and shortcomings in security technology associated with the breeder concept. Four decades of development in all the major industrial countries have reduced the breeder concept to absurdity.
There are six additional reasons arguing against any kind of future viability for nuclear power.
The water problem: Nuclear reactors’ enormous water needs for steam and cooling compete with the demand for water from a growing world population.
Minimal efficiency: The waste heat produced by nuclear power plants hardly lends itself to combined heat and power cogeneration. The reason is that long-distance heating transmission from centralized power plant blocks is very expensive. That is why nuclear energy is the energy form with the most meager opportunities for increasing efficiency.
Risk vulnerability: In tandem with the growing risk of “new wars” (wars no longer carried out between states) there is a parallel rise in the world-wide danger of nuclear terrorism – and not just from airplane attacks on reactors.
The wrong energy business plan: Since investment in nuclear power plants is especially capital-intensive, building these plants clashes with the liberalization of electricity markets and their short-term amortization periods.
The time perspective for final disposal: Nuclear waste needs 100,000 years to be securely stored. In light of growing risks of social instability, what political system can provide guarantees for such a lengthy term?
Creeping radioactive contamination: Nobody can estimate the long-term risks that releasing radioactivity harbors for nature and for human beings, even on a small scale. The more nuclear power plants there are in operation, the greater the danger.
But what about atomic fusion?
The only prospect that remains is the nuclear fusion reactor, of which nobody today can say for sure if it will ever work. The operating principle of this reactor is that two hydrogen atoms (deuterium und tritium) are fused in a hot gas. The gas has to be heated for a few seconds to more than 100 million degrees centigrade – “hotter than the heat of the sun,” where the fusion process happens. To achieve ignition, an even higher temperature of 400 million degrees centigrade is required. Even if there were no other environmental risks and even if basing everything just on the costs estimated by nuclear fusion researchers (and let it be recalled: all cost projections made by nuclear researches have consistently proven to be vastly understated in practice), there is no rational economic reason to develop and introduce these kinds of atomic option.
Japanese fusion research, for example, puts construction costs at between 2400 and 4800 dollars per power plant, which adds up to a price of between 14 and 38 cents per kilowatt hour. The lower figure is already higher than average costs for wind-based electricity in Germany today; the upper figure is higher than what it costs today for photovoltaic cells in southern Europe. Alexander Bradshaw, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and scientific director of Germany’s nuclear fusion research, put the cost at between six and twelve Euro-cents. But he, like the aforementioned Japanese study, did not mention that the walls for the reactor have to be replaced at least every five to eight years, and that the replacement itself can take one to two years. These would be radiated components that would have to be stored as nuclear waste. Because of the lengthy periods when the reactor would be out of commission, there would have to be at least one substitute reactor as a standby for every two or three reactors actually running, which quickly pushes costs up even higher.
One study not conducted by a fusion researcher is the one Emanuele Negro drew up for the EU Commission: This study arrives at costs for producing electricity that are seven times higher than the expense of a nuclear fission reactor, calculated over a term of 30 years. Negro compares these costs with the declining costs calculated for photovoltaic energy through the year 2050 – in other words, before nuclear fusion would even be available theoretically. He arrives at the conclusion that photovoltaic costs can draw even with those for producing fossil electricity today, while to “the best of our knowledge” nuclear fusion costs would be five times higher. This confirms what the former deputy director of the Plasma Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, M.L. Lidsky, had already said more than two decades ago: Nobody will want this reactor the way it is meant to be built.
It is a myth, moreover, that nuclear fusion reactors pose no environmental risks. While they are operating, the material inside the core reactor becomes highly radioactive, which entails very costly waste disposal. Although this material, in contrast to the nuclear fuel rods used in atomic fission reactors, is only active for about 100 years, the amounts are considerably larger.
The tritium required for fusion is capable of penetrating solid structures, and it turns into tritiated water after contact with air, which can cause the most serious kind of biological damage once it gets into the water cycle.
Nuclear fusion reactors have an enormous thirst for cooling water. If for no other reason than its need for cooling water, this reactor technology has an inherent disposition toward being employed in highly concentrated production centers. There is talk of building reactors on a scale ranging from 5000 to as much as 200,000 MW.
Between 1974 and 1998, total costs for nuclear fusion among the OECD countries were already around 28.3 billion dollars. The test reactor called ITER, planned for use in an international cooperative effort and meant to be finished by the mid-2020s, is estimated to have construction costs of 3.5 billion dollars. A follow-up demonstration reactor is meant to be built for eight billion dollars.
No matter how highly skilled nuclear fusion researchers have to be in their training and work, the statements they make when asked about renewable energy are inept. Renewable energy’s technological shortcomings are subjected to denunciation as permanently insurmountable drawbacks, even though renewable energy already has a proven track record of productive performance. But nevertheless, the fusion experts think it would be more realistic than to contribute towards already existing introducing renewable energy on a broad scale.
For nuclear fusion researchers, the technological performance they expect from a fusion reactor (should it ever succeed) is matched only by the downright subterranean level at which they rate renewable energy. The fusion protagonists pushing today’s nuclear energy renaissance are certainly not at a loss for cognitive ability, but they do lack the will to acquire knowledge about renewable energy. If they were ready and willing to learn about what renewable energy makes possible, they would have to come out on behalf of stopping the nuclear fusion program and start to favor optimizing technologies for renewable energy. But since they are not about to head down this path on their own, the only remaining option is to stop fusion research by political means.
My conclusion is: Our world faces a choice between “solar” and “atoms.” In reality, the future prospects for atomic energy are anything but positive. That is why the projections associated with atomic energy play such a big role: Projections serve as a kind of bail bond for the traditional energy system. The preference of big business for atomic energy arises from its belief that teaming up with nuclear power facilitates its domination of the energy sector. If we lived in a looking glass world where nuclear energy could only be used in a decentralized form and renewable energy only by way of large power plants, it is a safe bet that the suppliers of fossil energy would have rejected the former and always opted for the latter.
The motive for the propagandists of atomic energy’s renaissance may be tactical or just pure presumption. It would be tactical if they were merely working toward maintaining the status quo at current levels, knowing all the while that the clock is ticking for atomic energy. Just to succeed at this modest goal, the “nuclear community” needs to exaggerate its own importance in a systematic way and denigrate every alternative.
But maybe it is also presumptuous enough to hope that the fast breeder reactor might be made to work so that modern societies can still reach the saving shore of nuclear fusion. In the meantime (according to this scenario), fossil energy will continue to be the primary way of bridging the era between fission and fusion. They resemble the hopes of a penniless man in a restaurant who orders one course of oysters after another in the hope to eventually find the pearl with which to pay for his gluttony. Money is no obstacle so long as the systemic shift to renewable energy can be prevented. “Anything but renewable energy” is the secret motto.
Yet the atomic-fossil energy system can no longer be expected to win the last battle in its war for self-preservation. The attempt to prevent a practical reorientation toward renewable energy is bound to fail. There is no way that the technological opportunities for using renewable energy can be permanently silenced and undervalued. The most one can do is keep holding them back – in much the same way that has been employed long enough.
The world view which rested on the hope that all of society’s problems could be solved by science and technology led to an existential discrepancy in our civilization: ”The discrepancy between technological perfectionism and the persistence of human fallibility. History teaches: There are no safeguards on any aspect of civilized progress, and the danger of reversion to anarchy is omnipresent. The modern world’s flood of scientific knowledge has not been able to prevent human-made natural destruction from becoming steadily greater on a global scale. There seems to exist a “Promethean shame” that afflicts humans in the form of a growing sense of insufficiency vis-à-vis the fruits of technology. Humans began to trust technology more than themselves and have developed a limitless faith in technological feasibility. Man has “deserted into the camp of his appliances”.
Every linear development reaches a breaking point when the cycles of nature, society, and economics start to stand in its way, when the development no longer has sufficient feedback and when its own control variables stop changing in response. If a system is overpowering, it can extend its existence unduly for a while. Yet, as they grow larger, the corporations that supply energy also become more immobile – not in spite of their capital and organizational power, but because of them. Today’s energy system is capable of ignoring the limits set by global climate change longer than anyone. The consequences of climate change do not immediately affect its perpetrators. But there certainly is an impact from other energy-determined crises. That is why there is growing reluctance on the part of capital markets to provide billions in credits for large power plants and the extensive infrastructure they would require.
The first sentence of the final communiqué from the 2004 World Energy Conference reads: “All energy options must be kept open and no technology should be idolised or demonised.” What this meant was that renewable energy should not be idolized and nuclear and fossil energy not demonized. In other words: Nuclear and fossil energy should be presented to the public consciousness as equivalent, by trivializing the problems and dangers of nuclear and fossil energy and by systematically playing down the technological and economic opportunities associated with renewable energy as well as its manifold social benefits. A broad-based campaign is meant to persuade people that the system of nuclear and fossil energy supply is irresponsible for energy-related crises and to dissuade governments and societies from turning to renewable energy.
On the basis of that assertion about equivalence with renewable energy, the only thing then meant to be decisive is the current market price for energy: In order to facilitate formulating this price to the detriment of renewable energy, control over the structures of energy supplies needs to be secured. These are the exculpatory lies that serve to conserve the established energy system, lies the system uses in its attempt to justify its continued existence. All this is a bad omen for “rationality” in dealing with renewable energy. Lately, strategies of sowing confusion are being used not only to dispute the potential of renewable energy for replacing atomic and fossil energy, but also to contest renewable energy’s environmental edge.
The question is how many governments and parliaments will continue to support the established energy system’s self-preservation strategy – and, if they do, whether they then have the financial clout to raid the state’s coffers again for the sake of a atomic energy renaissance. It is also questionable as to how long the public will let itself be deceived – and as to how many of the forces inside the energy system will hold out in maintaining this self-deception and submitting to the esprit de corps of the energy fraternity’s old boys network.
There is no other choice except to break the structural power of the established energy system and (quite independently of that) to mobilize the forces for renewable energy.