Atomkraft, Atomkraftwerk

23.04.20 The future of nuclear power Thomas Schmidt • 8 min.

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Nuclear energy, perennially controversial, is now being touted as a source of climate-neutral power. Can it make a comeback?

The debate about nuclear power hinges less on technology than on two human attitudes: belief and doubt. The believers still brim with the 20th century’s enthusiasm for technology: if it can be done, let’s do it. The doubters worry about what it all will lead to. One thing nuclear power definitely leads to is radioactive waste, which some doubters claim must be stored safely for a million years. The believers, by contrast, contend that a few thousand years will suffice. 

Regardless of the correct time frame for storage, nuclear power’s believers are placing an immense burden on future generations. Which makes nuclear’s cautious comeback all the more astonishing. 

The believers argue that curbing climate change will require reliable alternatives to coal and gas. Wind and solar are green but not very reliable. Nuclear is both. Greta Thunberg, despite ample criticism from within the Friday’s For Future movement, agrees: “Personally I am against nuclear power. But according to the IPCC (the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), it can be a small part of a very big new carbon-free energy solution.” 

No more intellectual taboos 

“If we’re really serious about climate protection, we have to put an end to intellectual taboos and discuss the use of nuclear power without ideological blinders,” wrote Jürgen Hambrecht, Lino Guzzella, and Lars Josefsson in an op-ed for Handelsblatt, a German business daily. Hambrecht is Chairman of the BASF Supervisory Board, Guzzella teaches thermotronics at the ETH Zurich, and Josefsson is a former CEO of Vattenfall, a big Swedish energy company. Their message: “Anyone who seriously considers feasible scenarios for an end to fossil fuel must admit that there is no way around nuclear energy in Europe.” 

Thomas Blades, CEO of Mannheim-based Bilfinger, a leading industrial services provider, puts it this way: “You can’t simultaneously phase out of coal and nuclear energy. Germany’s energy transition is a climate-policy failure.” Blades could hardly be accused of advocating policies that benefit his company. In fact, Bilfinger actually earns millions of euros each year dismantling the nuclear power plants (NPPs) that governments have forced to shut down. 

Centenarian British biophysicist James Lovelock likewise considers Germany’s nuclear phaseout a mistake and people’s fear of nuclear power—exacerbated by Chernobyl and Fukushima—completely unfounded. “Nuclear power is extremely safe,” Lovelock says. Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker also sees it as humankind’s safest energy source: “We need more nuclear power, not less,” and thinks that the problems associated with radioactive-waste storage are “more political than technological.” 

If the problem lies with policymakers, it doesn’t lie with Michael Kretschmer, the prime minister of the German federal state of Saxony: “Nuclear research must continue and also receive government support. We need to remain technology-neutral.” Kretschmer, a member of Germany’s center-right CDU party, believes that if, despite the energy transition, the country’s energy security is in jeopardy a decade from now, a nuclear comeback is conceivable. 

Nuclear repository: The unsolved problem

Fusion: illusion or solution? 

Kretschmer worded his remarks cautiously. He knows that a return of nuclear power in Germany is currently a political impossibility. In neighboring France, though, the situation is different: “Nuclear power will help us achieve zero-carbon and cheap energy,” President Emmanuel Macron says. In fact, a fusion reactor is under construction in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, about 65 kilometers northwest of Marseille. Instead of splitting atoms, the reactor will fuse them into a plasma. Nuclear theory suggests that fusion will release ten times more energy than it consumes. And solve the world’s energy problems. Although the fusion reactor has been under construction since 2007, it has yet to prove that it works. 

China isn’t waiting to find out and has announced that it intends to build its own fusion reactor in the near future. The United States and Great Britain are also putting a lot of money into fusion research. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is one of the investors. “Nuclear energy is the solution to climate change,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece in early 2019. 

Insiders joke that fusion is always on the verge of a breakthrough—but still needs another ten years. Advocates of nuclear energy therefore continue to rely on fission: more than 100 NPPs are under construction or in planning worldwide. Most are of them are third-generation reactors, a technology that has been around for about two decades. But researchers are busily developing a fourth generation, which will be cleaner, more efficient, and safe. These reactors will get over 50 times more energy out of uranium and will even be able to use spent fuel rods. Moreover, they’ll be cooled by liquid sodium instead of water. “This will render accidents like the one in Fukushima impossible,” says Götz Ruprecht, head of the Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physics in Berlin. 

Old NPPs are being shut down 

The industry definitely needs new ideas. Because traditional reactors are expensive to build and to run. In Germany, for example, nuclear power costs more than ten cents per kilowatt-hour, significantly more than power produced with coal, gas, solar, or wind. As a result, new NPPs are being built primarily in countries—like Russia, China, and India—where they are fully state-funded or heavily subsidized. 

Old NPPs are gradually being shut down. Nuclear power provided 10 percent of Germany’s electricity in 2019 compared with 17 percent in 1997. By 2040, this figure could fall as low as 3 percent. Unless, of course, nuclear power makes a comeback.


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