On September 13, 2009 current German Chancellor Angela Merkel debated with her Social Democratic Party challenger (and current coalition partner) Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Though most of the debate indicated broad areas of relative agreement on issues and some amount of pride from both on the country’s accomplishments in many areas, they differed on the issue of whether or not to press forward with the scheduled phase out of the country’s existing 17 nuclear power plants.
Several traditional publications have covered this story, including The Economist – Nuclear power? Yes, maybe: , The Financial Times – Steinmeier has spring in step as poll nears and CNN – Germany’s ‘TV duel’ turns friendly as election looms, but none of them seemed to have noticed how clearly the words used in the debate illustrate the anti-customer nature of the decision to shut down nuclear electricity generators.
Here are the words used by Steinmeier as he stated his opinion that the nuclear phase out must continue.
“For eight years now, we have been phasing out of nuclear energy at the same time as investing in renewable energy,” Steinmeier said Sunday in a TV debate with Merkel before an estimated 20 million viewers. “We have come a long way, we are leaders in renewable energy technology, and I guarantee you that as soon as we go down the road of extending the lifeline of nuclear energy plants … investment in the renewable sector will end.”
(Source: Nuclear Power Daily German campaign focusing on nuclear)
In other words, in his smooth, seductive way, Steinmeier is willing to close nuclear plants, not because he is concerned about often repeated red herrings like nuclear proliferation, used fuel disposal, or plant safety, but because he is worried that continued operation will expose the fact that renewables only have a chance in the market if Germany clears the way by eliminating 28 percent of its current electricity supply sources. What he did not mention, but what every energy industry observer knows is that the favored, warm and fuzzy renewables will NOT be able to supply the 28 percent of Germany’s electricity needs currently supplied by reliable nuclear power plants. Instead, warm and fuzzy, but unreliable renewables will supply some power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, but coal and natural gas will supply power that could have been produced by fission at all other times.
One of my pet peeves is being pressured by salesmen, whether it is in a car dealership, at my front door, or in business meetings where the salesman is disguised as a “business development” expert who is touting new regulations or policies as a “forcing function” that indicates an immediate need to buy whatever it is he is selling. As a customer, it makes me angry when I recognize the high pressure for me to make a decision now and to fork over my hard earned money. When I am in a situation of advising government leaders it makes me angry when I recognize that the business development expert played a role in devising the new rules in order to create opportunities for his company to make more money and for him to get a bonus.
Unfortunately, I do not read German and cannot tell if there are German citizens who recognize that they are being maneuvered into a situation where they are forced to subsidize both the development of both renewable energy sources that will never be able to supply the electricity needed to operate a developed country full of people who like to live in a comfortable, gadget filled world AND the development of new coal and natural gas infrastructure to supply the reliable electricity that the industrial leaders recognize is a firm requirement. This task would be far cheaper and easier if the country simply maintained its existing nuclear power plants and considered building new ones to meet future demand growth and/or to allow reductions in fossil fuel emissions.
In the words of The Economist:
One reason to keep reactors humming is money. Nuclear power plants are horribly expensive to build, but are then relatively cheap to run. Christopher Kuplent of Credit Suisse, an investment bank, reckons that German power companies could generate extra profits to the tune of €25 billion ($36 billion) before tax if they do not have to hit the off button. German electricity prices, which are among Europe’s highest, would probably also drop. That would please big businesses which have been lobbying to extend the lives of the plants.
Claudia Kemfert of DIW, a think-tank in Berlin, argues that keeping the nuclear plants going would buy time and produce the money needed for Germany to increase the share of energy coming from renewable sources. If utilities were allowed to run nuclear power plants for longer, they would probably have to share their gains, perhaps by having to pay a windfall tax or agreeing to finance investments in renewable energy, says Mr Kuplent.
If keeping the nuclear plants operating would result in “windfall” profits for the plant owners, why are there still people who believe it when anti-nuclear activists tell us that nuclear power is too expensive? That is just not logical and is simply not true. Here is a radical thought – why not allow the plant owners to use the low cost electrical power that they produce to either lower rates for customers or to build up to invest in replacements for coal fired power stations that use that same low marginal cost, zero emission fuel that is doing so well?
One more thing – there is no doubt in my mind that there are plenty of interested parties in Germany who are salivating at the prospects of building new power plants and selling enough additional fuel continuously to replace the power output of the existing nuclear energy facilities. I fully expect lots of press – and it has already started – that emphasizes even the most minor incident at a nuclear facility and that tells Germans that they should be very afraid since the chosen waste storage area at Gorleben is “leaky”. People motivated by expectations of monetary gain are often quite clever in obtaining their goals.
Update: Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat has a thought provoking comparison between Italy’s decision to reenter the nuclear power business and Germany’s upcoming and seemingly very close political decision of whether to continue a previously determined path to abandon nuclear energy. Italy advances, Germany falters, on nuclear energy futures.