• Geoff Russell

Stop Press: Germany's nuclear plants

Finally, the pounding of rationality has opened the great oak door of German energy policy by a centimetre or so. Germany may look at keeping its last 3 nuclear plants operating beyond the end of the year.

A few days ago Dusseldorf Professor of International Economics, Jens Südekum, argued that nuclear wouldn't help because "you can't heat with them". It's certainly true that most of Germany's gas goes into heat rather than electricity, but in 2021 Germany generated 89 terawatt-hours of electricity with gas. How much is that? About 10 nuclear reactors worth. So the output of the remaining 3 reactors is certainly significant. The smart thing to do is to look at re-opening as many of the 14 reactors shut since 2011 as possible. I've no idea what state these are in, but such a course should be investigated.

Nuclear can't do heat? Yes it can!

It's also false that you can't heat with nuclear plants. Apart from volcanoes, nuclear plants are probably the best heat sources on the planet; it's what they do. I say "probably" because they can sometimes be outperformed by geothermal heat. What's geothermal heat? It's also nuclear heat; coming from radioactive decay heat deep underground. This isn't fission, but it can still be pretty hot!

The fact that the Germans haven't chosen to pipe heat from their plants to their cities has nothing to do with technical feasibility. In 2020 the first commercial nuclear municipal heating project was opened in China. With solar and wind, you only get electricity and transforming that into heat is very inefficient. If you start with heat, as you do with nuclear power, and you want electricity, then that is also very inefficient. It's a numbers game; details matter. A nuclear reactor generates steam which drives a turbine to make electricity; the steam loses energy (meaning it gets cooler) in the process; but it's still plenty hot enough for many purposes and can be piped considerable distances.

The human cost of ignorance

I've written plenty on this blog about the misinformation about radiation risks (see here for example). When Angela Merkel was changing her mind about nuclear and deciding to close Germany's plants, UK green left journalist George Monbiot was looking at the actual events at Fukushima and re-evaluating his anti-nuclear position. After looking at the science he wrote a number of devastating critiques of anti-nuclear misinformation (see also here).

It's particularly ironic that the Germans should be worried about radiation when they are so addicted to other Class 1 carcinogens: Ahle Wurst, Beutelwurst, Bierschinken, Bierwurst, Blood tongue, Bockwurst, Bratwurst, Braunschweiger, Bregenwurst, Brühwurst, Cervelat, Currywurst, Debrecener, Extrawurst, Frankfurter Rindswurst, Frankfurter Würstchen, Gelbwurst, Jagdwurst and the rest of the alphabet!

The closure of Germany's nuclear plants after the Fukushima meltdowns was one of the greatest overreactions since large parts of the world descended into chaos over the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in 1914. The closure proved even more deadly than the other great overreaction, the evacuation of more than 100,000 people in regions around the nuclear plant. The German nuclear shutdown has caused an estimated 9,000 premature deaths from the additional fossil fuel pollution that it caused. That's even more than the 1,595 extra people killed in traffic accidents after the 9/11 attacks in the US; when many people spontaneously, and irrationally, took to driving rather than flying.

I grew up thinking that Germans were rational people; great engineers. I'm sure many are. So let's hope their politicians can at last start to educate themselves about radiation and start making evidence-based decisions; not just policy informed by street theatre and slogans.


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