Japan is shutting down the last of its nuclear power plants. While the closure is slated to be temporary, popular opinion has shifted, and no one is certain when or if the reactor will be brought back online. Prior to the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, Japan counted on nuclear generation for 30 percent of its electrical needs. After the disaster, they turned off 53 nuclear plants, with the last one scheduled to go offline this month.
Miranda Schreurs, professor of comparative politics and director of the Environmental Policy Research Centre at the Freie Universitat Berlin, says Japan is closely watching Germany’s shift to green energy, a transition Miller-McCune has followed closely.
Depending on green energy will be harder for Japan than Germany, which currently generates 23 percent of its electricity with nuclear power.
Japan was able to turn off its nuclear plants without blackouts due to emergency energy-saving programs and use of more fossil fuels (with very little help from renewables). But Japan doesn’t want to miss out on the boom in technological innovation this forced transition will foster.
“Although Japan is way behind Germany on renewables and was slipping in energy-efficiency advances before Fukushima,” Schreurs argues that Japan has the technology and the willpower to move from nuclear power to green energy.
Schreurs is a member of the German Advisory Council on the Environment and served on Germany’s Ethics Commission for a Secure Energy Supply. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel had this 17-member panel consider the implications for Germany’s energy future through a prism of society, environment, ethics, and risk. The commission recommended last May that Germany move away from nuclear power.
Summarizing the panel’s thinking, Schreurs said, “Even though German nuclear plants are among the safest in the world, there is no way to be able to imagine all the problems that could occur.” Many of Germany’s plants were built in the 1970s, before 9/11, before airplanes became so large, before scientists considered the double whammy like a major earthquake and tsunami. “Recent events are far worse than the worst-case scenarios considered three and four decades ago,” and so “the commission concluded there is no way to guarantee that existing plants are safe.” (Miller-McCune's John Perlin reported on a similar conclusion reached by nuclear-engineer-turned-solar-apostle Cesare Silvi last June.)
When Schreurs was in Japan recently to share the commission’s report, she saw her Geiger counter kick into the danger range in a public train station. The commission recognized that health risks at Chernobyl and Fukushima will persist for centuries. “It’s hard to imagine cleaning up plutonium in the mountains that could wash into streams every time it rains,” Schreurs reflected. As a result, regions surrounding these power plants will remain uninhabitable for hundreds of years.
The lack of a solution for housing nuclear waste also figured prominently in the panel’s conclusions. “There are still no high-level radioactive waste storage sites anywhere in the world, and leaving future generations with a major and dangerous waste problem so that we can enjoy a good life today, is not an ethical policy.”
But among the most persuasive conclusions the commission reached was its last. “Other forms of energy are less controversial and less divisive, and it is possible to move away from coal, oil, and eventually gas and nuclear to a much more energy- and resource-efficient society that takes planetary boundaries into consideration. We can move to a new modern energy system that is good for the climate and less ethically questionable.”
As Miller-McCune has noted, these conclusions on energy proved appealing across the German political spectrum. “It’s remarkable that Germany accepted the commission’s recommendations,” Schreurs said.
After Fukushima and the commission’s report, Germany’s right-wing parties joined the former red/green coalition to advance the existing deadlines for phasing out the remaining eight nuclear power plants by 2022. They also agreed to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent (from 1990 levels) by 2020. While some questioned German’s ability to reach this goal, Schreurs points out that Germany already cut carbon emissions 27 percent even as electricity use rose by 14 percent. And while skeptics predicted that Germany would end up buying nuclear-generated electricity from France, in a cold snap last winter, the French bought power from Germany.
How has Germany achieved this striking progress?
A fifth of the nation’s electricity, Schreurs explained, comes from renewables, with the biggest share from onshore wind power built by farmers. Government policy requires grid operators to accept and pay a set fee — a “feed-in tariff” — for the electricity (although that fee has been cut of late). And “brown land” — old military and industrial sites — are sprouting wind machines, some with a ground cover of solar panels. Solar is spreading on rooftops as well. On a yearly basis, solar power generates only 3-4 percent of Germany’s electricity, but on a sunny day, up to 25 percent comes from solar.
Schreurs attributes the move to green power to “a really strong political commitment that is driven by concern about climate change. Germans don’t understand why the U.S. is so slow to act, and regard the U.S. as quite irresponsible. But they are also convinced that in the long run, green energy will be the cheapest form of energy. Plus it won’t be contentious like nuclear power, and it isn’t dependent on the price spikes of oil-exporting countries.”
Before Fukushima, Schreurs considered California a key competitor in green technology. “It had the political will, good environmental conditions for use of renewables, but now Germany has pulled way ahead of California. … Germany is the No. 1 exporter of green technologies, including technologies for energy efficiency, waste control, and waste recycling.”
“Talking about CO2 reductions of 75-80 percent without nuclear power is a revolution — a change we haven’t seen in over a century.” She expects all kinds of innovation from smart grid technology to your household refrigerator becoming a smart machine that stores energy on sunny days and then uses that energy on days with less or no sunshine. “Some communities in Germany,” Schreurs said, “are already running on 100 percent renewable energy. They are not just becoming carbon free by buying carbon offsets abroad, but achieving success with efficiency and renewables.”
While Schreurs admits that there are technical hitches as Germany develops offshore wind (hurdles such as the corrosive impact of salt on turbines located 100 miles out to sea), but the it’s constant and much stronger than onshore, so Germany is counting on that technology to meet the radical goals necessary to be nuclear free.
“Other European nations (Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria) have also said no to nuclear,” Schreurs concluded. “We’ll see a two-track development with some countries clinging to the old model and others moving to a new future. As an American, I hope the U.S. wakes up.”