Viewpoints: German nuclear shutdown

  • 30 May 2011
  • From the section Europe

Germany's decision to close all its nuclear power plants by 2022 may affect the industry across Europe. Switzerland is also phasing out nuclear energy but the UK has proposed new nuclear power stations, entirely funded by the private sector.

Will Germany's decision lead to an international debate for more renewable sources of energy, or is this an internal German development, unlikely to have an impact elsewhere?

Here, speaking to the BBC World Service, British nuclear power advocate Malcolm Grimston argues about the impact with green energy campaigner Jeremy Leggett.

Malcolm Grimston, Chatham House research fellow in nuclear issues, and adviser to the UK government on nuclear policy

This is not necessarily damaging for the nuclear industry. I think this will create new export opportunities for the French nuclear industry in Germany. The Czech Republic will be another source of the replacement imports. Most of that will be as a result of coal but the Czech Republic itself has a vigorous new nuclear programme. So this does create a new market for nuclear electricity and, as long as that is what has happened, then the environment will not be damaged.

I think the real concern is that last year we had more carbon dioxide emissions than ever before. To have a major European economy inevitably saddling itself with more greenhouse gas emissions - the German Greens are openly talking about building more gas-powered plants and supporting the new coal-fired plants that are being brought online - is, I think, going to be a tragedy for the environment, and I don't think it's going to be good for the German economy.

There is plenty of time for the Germans to reverse their decision. We have seen many flip-flops in German opinion already. The economy there is already very severely crippled by its enormous renewable subsidies and, of course, in hot weather the wind farms tend not to work at all. In Germany they had about 1.5% output for three weeks in 2003 because of the heat.

Having said that, I hope we can get further with renewables and with energy efficiency. Energy efficiency tends not to cut energy use, it boosts economic output. These are all things we have to approach but to be closing down nuclear plants rather than coal plants is, I think, just environmental vandalism.

Jeremy Leggett, green energy campaigner and owner of a renewable energy company

I think the German decision is a very encouraging development and I would be very bullish about what will happen in the train of it. On the subject of French nuclear electricity, Electricite de France have already warned that this summer most of their nuclear power plants, the ones inland, are going to be stressed because we have had such a dry spring. The rivers are low, there is not enough cooling water, so they have put on watch the coastal reactors that will not be able to have scheduled maintenance. And they have flagged that they may be needing to import electricity from other countries as a result of the innate weaknesses of the French nuclear plants.

Another factor is that there is a review going on of all the nuclear plants in France. They are going to be looking in detail at the safety and reliability aspects of those plants and who knows what they are going to find when we look under those carpets? In America right now, the nuclear regulatory authority is going through the same exercise. They have found problems in every plant they have looked at. So this is an ailing industry.

I think, in the wake of the German decision, we will see the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries showing what they are capable of.

In the long run, nuclear power does not really help that much with greenhouse gas emissions. The way you deal with that problem is by accelerating energy efficiency and renewables, and that is what this decision is going to do.

Japan is shutting down 38 nuclear reactors. I have just come back from there. It is pretty dim at night. They are turning down the lights, they are trying to stave off these rolling power cuts they would have to have because so many plants are being shut down. But they are finding in many areas that they do not need the rolling power cuts because when people turn their minds to energy efficiency, they can do incredible things.

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