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German Energiewende Successful, But We Still Need Nuclear Energy

German Solar and Wind Energy

This post was co-authored by Jessica Lovering, policy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute

Germany’s massive investment in distributed and renewable electricity, known as the Energiewende (energy transition), is often heralded as the shining example for climate change action. Many use it as evidence that wind and solar photovoltaics are mature, scalable, off-the-shelf, cost-effective, and market disruptive technologies. Germany’s impressive wind and solar deployment in recent years has been used by activists in the environmental community, as well as governments, to argue against the need for investment in other zero carbon energy sources, particularly nuclear and other centralized forms of energy.

There’s little doubt that Germany’s renewables programs have been instrumental in driving down balance-of-system costs and promoting innovation across the electric power sector. The cost of installed solar PV in Germany is less than half that in the US because of greater efficiencies in the supply chain, labor, and permitting processes. The rapid deployment of variable electricity has encouraged Germany’s largest electric power utility to invest in electricity storage innovation. Germany should be commended for these achievements. 

But the success of Germany’s Energiewende at lowering costs and promoting innovation does not prove that wind and solar are fully scalable and disruptive, as Bill McKibbenAmory Lovinsother climate activists, and even government representatives have claimed.

Nor do Germany’s achievements mean that we can rely primarily on wind and solar to decarbonize the electricity supply in a timely manner. In a world that just shot past 400 parts per million COand is fast approaching 450, we need to consider the full range of low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear power, one of the only commercial, cost-effective, emissions-free, and baseload technologies available.

For starters, despite what some have argued to the contrary, nuclear power remains one of the least expensive low-carbon energy options available – comparable to large hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass on a levelized cost basis without subsidies, and far cheaper than solar PV and offshore wind.

According to an analysis by the Breakthrough Institute, Germany’s current installed solar panels will end up costing ratepayers $130 billion over the next 20 years through above-market-rate feed-in tariff contracts, compared to $15 billion for a state-of-the-art nuclear reactor that will generate over half the electricity of Germany’s entire solar fleet over a similar 20-year period.

The Breakthrough Institute’s analysis considers an advanced reactor that’s under construction in Finland by the French company Areva. The new design, known as a European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), is the first of its kind and dramatically safer, more reliable, and more efficient than most existing nuclear reactors around the world. But like many new reactors, Areva’s EPR has been labeled as an uneconomical boondoggle and a massive subsidy for a dead-end technology.

As the analysis finds, even with the construction delays and huge cost overruns, the reactor in Finland will still provide electricity to the grid at a fraction of the cost of Germany’s current solar fleet. And while the Areva project is over-budget and behind schedule, the second, third, and fourth builds in France and China have so far been more successful, learning from the first build and allowing for more predictable costs and construction timelines.

Solar and wind power will continue to come down in price, thanks in no small part to Germany’s ambitious Energiewende and other policies which support the continued manufacture and deployment of renewable energy. But it will be some time before a technology like solar PV can compete on a per-kWh basis with nuclear power 

The largest advantage of nuclear power is its ability to provide reliable, baseload power year-round 24 hours a day. Solar and wind can be economical as distributed energy resources, whose greatest value is suppressing demand load on the grid. But nuclear power provides baseload power and will therefore be the most technically optimal replacement for large fossil-fueled power stations like coal plants.

By taking low carbon baseload electricity off the table, Germany has restricted its options to replace its fossil fueled fleet, which currently supplies 70 percent of its electricity needs.

The case for nuclear is even stronger in developing economies like India and China, which have plans to build one thousand coal plants in coming years, where urban energy demand could double or triple by mid-century, and where there may not be a high willingness-to-pay for costly solar and other renewables. It would be foolish – and likely very expensive – to limit the options to renewables alone and not to include nuclear power.

In the late 1970s and 1980s France made a strategic decision to meet growing energy demand by expanding its nuclear power industry. In the 1980s France’s CO2 emissions declined by some 30 percent and have remained low ever since, marking one of the fastest low carbon energy transitions in history. France relies on nuclear power for 80 percent of its electricity demand and has lower per capita CO2 emissions than most industrialized nations, including Germany (by about 30%).

Therefore it is strange that the President of Germany’s Federal Environment Agency recently expressed bewilderment at the expansion of nuclear in other countries around the globe, arguing that Germany’s Energiewende proves that nuclear is unnecessary.

In a post on the Rocky Mountain Institute website, activist Amory Lovins writes that “simply repeating [Germany’s] 2011 renewable installations for three additional years, through 2014, would displace Germany’s entire pre-Fukushima nuclear output.” But Lovins makes a basic mistake of not accounting for the fact that solar and wind only operate when the sun is shining and the wind blowing. Some basic math shows that it would take at least 10 years to replace the output of Germany’s pre-Fukushima nuclear fleet with wind and solar, but even then you would still need fossil-fueled plants for back-up power.

Hitting 400 parts per million atmospheric CO2 could have been a rallying call for climate activists to embrace a diverse range of technologies in the fight against climate change. Instead we’ve seen a doubling down of technology tribalism, embodied in statements like the one above from Amory Lovins. Germany’s energy transition has been used by activists and governments as evidence that we can solve climate change with wind and solar, and that we don’t need nuclear power. But in a world fast approaching the dangerous climate threshold, we can’t afford to make such misinformed assumptions, nor leave nuclear power off the table.

Photo Credit: German Energiewende/shutterstock

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Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jul 9, 2013

This feels like a “damage control” piece to me

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Jul 9, 2013

I agree, this is an excellent article but someone needs to do the homework on what the cost is for recent PV installs is compared to nuclear plants (and don’t select the most expensive nuclear plant either). Another complicating factor is that the operating life of the nuclear plant is 2-3 times longer than the solar PV.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Jul 9, 2013

Excellent article!

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Jul 10, 2013

Even if Germany did, or could, replace all of its nuclear generation with an equal amount of renewable generation, Energiewende would be an abject failure.  How else could one characterize spending hundreds of billions of dollars to replace one clean non-CO2-emitting source with another?  That, instead of using the (expensive) renewables to replace fossil generation.

Why is it that all of these “environmentalists” continue to point to the replacement of nuclear w/ renewables, as opposed to fossil fuels?  Despite the universal scientific consensus that fossil fuels are much worse than nuclear, it is clear that nuclear is first on these people’s list in terms of what should be removed (replaced by renewables).  This is outrageous, since reduction of fossil fuel use should be the real goal.

How does this show that nuclear is unnecessary?  All it shows is that you can have a combination of renewables and (mainly) fossil, instead of a combination of nuclear and fossil.  It does NOT show that renewables can replace fossil w/o the help of nuclear.  Doing that would require a demonstration of renewables providing most of the country’s power, on a sustained basis; something that renewables have never come close to doing (with maximum penetrations, anywhere, on the order of ~20%).

Solar is still not close to nuclear on price, and even with the latest panel prices, solar is not even close to economical in a lousy (for solar) place like Germany.  Wind is a better bet there.  Also, simple cost comparisons due not factor in renewables’ intermittentcy limitations, and the costs of grid infrastructure and fossil backup.  Once one tries to use renewables for more than ~15-20% of overall generation, costs go up dramatically (if it’s practical at all).

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Jul 10, 2013

Nations that have pushed nuclear hard generally have lower carbon emissions per person, higher ramp rates and lower cost per kwh than those nations that pushed wind and/or solar hard.

Wind and solar have proven several times that they cannot scale as rapidly as nuclear.…



Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 10, 2013

Good article, except the issue of energy storage is understated.  We know that the two renewable resources that are by far the largest are solar and wind, and we know they are variable.  We know the variability is not much of a problem below 20% penetration, but rises quickly thereafter; at some point energy storage becomes required.

We know that energy storage greatly increases the cost of power (the link to the Hydrogenics articles talks about reversible fuel cells for H2 energy storage, which we know have a round trip energy efficiency below 50%).  So effectively, Germany has done only the “easy part”, the renewables without storage; it gets harder and more expensive from here.

We also know that thermal energy storage is one of the most promising types (with a cost several times lower than that of batteries).   It can’t be used with PV or wind, but it can be used with nuclear power, at least in theory.

So the most likely outcome of the German experiment will be that large deployments of energy storage there will not happen, and fossil fuels will continue to provide the majority of their electricity.  We know that with good forecasting, dirty coal can do most of the work of balancing variable renewables, and Germany has so far shown no interest in closing their coal mines. (No doubt Germany will increase their production of solar and wind power, but export the excess to neighboring countries, who will also use fossil fuels, not storage to balance the variability.)

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 10, 2013

I wonder if Germany realizes they will have to begin replacing all their wind mills in another 10-20 years.

Nichol Brummer's picture
Nichol Brummer on Jul 10, 2013

I’m not sure if energy-tribalism is so bad. As long as it means that different countries follow different strategies, but with an open mind to learn from best practices in other countries.

Germany has rather dogmatically dumped the nuclear energy. There simply was no support from the public for nuclear. On the other hand, nuclear energy as it exist turns out not to coexist very well with renewables. Even coal-fired plants seem to be more flexible. And flexibility is key, with renewables.

So let Germany run with the challenge they have chosen to pick up. They are doing very well indeed! The distributed production of power is a whole different paradigm, another type of system that needs to be optimised in very different ways. The old-style massive nuclear power station doesn’t seem to be a very good fit.

Let other countries experiment with nuclear power. A lot of research and  development is needed for new nuclear. The one power station in Finland was not yet enough to bring nuclear power to a state where it can safely and efficiently scale to the whole world. People in Timbuctoo, even during the recent civil war, could reliably get some power from a solar panel. A nuclear reactor would have been totally unreliable, unsafe, and a disaster waiting to happen when the jihadists took over.

Let other countries do research and development, to see if they can make the many nuclear ideas work, about which so many promising stories are told. It will take time. And it doesn’t look like a good solution for countries without a strong infrastructure, a grid, and a well educated population, with a good base of science, engineering, and industry.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 10, 2013

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, utility scale solar is installing for $2.14/W for fixed tilt (with residential costing about $4/W).  Fixed tilt solar has a capacity factor of around 20%, so this is equivalent to nuclear at a cost of $2.14*90/20= $9.63, which is only a bit higher than recent reports (except in China where nuclear supposedly costs only $2/W).  

However, this PV price does not include energy storage, which more than doubles the cost of energy.   Thus, the PV system is virtually guaranteed to be balanced by fossil fuel consumption at night, producing a lock-in effect that effectively prevents future reductions in fossil fuel use.  By comparison, baseload technologies like nuclear, desert CSP with storage, geothermal, and OTEC can be combined in any combination, to reach a total penetration of around 70% before the cost of new power increases.

The operating life issue is another that is often ignored.  Capital cost and levelized cost both tend to hide the effect of lifetime.  But the reality is that lifetime has a big effect on the future cost of energy.  Once the transition period is over, in the average year, 5% of all wind turbines must be replaced, compared to 3% of all solar plants and 1.3% of all nuclear plants.

George Stevens's picture
George Stevens on Jul 10, 2013

The real costs of storage are very interesting, but what about the increase in fixed costs that occurs simply by have 15-20% variable generation sources connected to the gird?

This cost in providing dispatchable back-up is not easy to figure out but it is there. I wish a utility publication would spell out all of the economics of variable generation penetrations that don’t require storage.

I am primarily curious as to how the peak-shaving and fuel off-setting attributes of solar and wind measure up to the costs of balancing out their intermittency.

Too many opinions on this issue, not enough data.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Jul 10, 2013

I’d find Germany’s “experiment” with the renewable path more acceptable if they used gas (at least) for most of their remaining generation.  Gas is far more flexible than coal, and therefore is a far better backup source for renewables.  On top of that, its environmental and global warming impacts are much lower than coal.

I acknowledge that the combination of gas and renewables has merit, and is the main legitimate competition for the nuclear-heavy paradigm.  It actually could work, has a relatively low environmental impact and could be somewhat economical (if one doesn’t go too crazy with the renewables subsidies and mandates, and uses renewables where they are most viable, e.g., the windy Great Plains of the US).  Thus, if some nations want to take that path, I can (begrudgingly) accept that, although I still think nuclear is somewhat better in terms of overall economics and environmental impact.

What I cannot abide is anyone choosing coal over nuclear, given that coal’s public health risks and environmental impacts are orders of magnitude larger.  Especially if one spends money to do so (e.g., tearing down nukes and building new coal plants).  Also unacceptable is the attitude that there is only renewable and non-renewable energy, and it doesn’t matter which non-renewable sources you use (since they’re “all dirty”).  In other words, we’re putting all our policy efforts into maximizing renewables.  For the rest, we don’t care at all what you use.  Gas?  Fine.  Coal?  Equally fine.  We don’t care, and will not give any incentive to use cleaner non-renewable sources (e.g., gas vs. coal).

What Europeans (Germanics in particular) don’t seem to understand is that the figure of merit is not how much renewables you use but how little coal and oil you use.  The difference (in environmental impact) between cleaner non-renewable sources (gas and nuclear) and dirtier non-renewable sources (coal and oil) is FAR larger than any difference between those cleaner sources and renewables.  Using gas (or nuclear) instead of coal is FAR more important than the use of renewable energy, both with respect to global warming and environmental/health impact in general.

I’m all for trying different paths to reducing global warming and overall energy sector environmental impact, but Germany’s using coal instead of gas shows that they simply aren’t trying; that they don’t really care about reducing air pollution.  Instead, it’s a political move, based on dogmatic support of renewables (only) in their political sphere.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Jul 10, 2013

A couple more points.

It’s an over-simplification to say that nuclear doesn’t fit with any renewables.  It fits fairly well with solar, since solar generates most power at times of peak demand, thus shaving the demand peaks and leaving a relatively flat remaining demand profile that is ideal for nuclear.  Nuclear and wind, on the other hand, don’t mesh well; the best “partner” for wind being gas.

I don’t agree that new nuclear needs R&D.  Current technology (advanced LWRs) is just fine.  It produces large amounts of steady, reliable, non-CO2-emitting, non-polluting baseload power.  It’s overall health risks and environmental impacts are far lower than those of fossil fuels.

I agree to some extent with your point about some nations not having the stability, expertise or infrastructure to use nuclear power.  For that reason, however, I believe that much of the world’s fossil fuels (gas in particular) should be saved for them, since you can’t get into too much trouble using gas, and it’s environmental impacts are acceptable (unlike coal).

Saving the fossil fuels (gas) for them, however, obliges (to some degree) the nations who can use nuclear responsibly to do so.  In other words, deveoped/advanced nations with existing nuclear programs should use more of it, so that under-developed countries don’t have to start nuclear programs, and can use fossil fuels instead.  This is true not only with respect to limited fossil fuel supplies (to go around) but a limited amount of CO2 that can responsibly be released into the atmosphere.

Another example of what I’m talking about is how Middle Eastern Nations such as UAE and even Saudi Arabia are starting large nuclear programs (4 and 16 large plants, respectively).  Their reasons are increasing domestic power demands, and the need to save their oil and gas for export.  Part of the reason for the need for those exports (i.e., higher volumes of exported oil and gas along with a better market price) is that the Western world (Europe and Japan) has an increased appetite for gas due to its use for power generation in lieu of nuclear.  If Europe and Japan used more nuclear, demand for gas exports would be lower and perhaps some of those Middle Eastern reactors would not be going forward.

It should be noted, however, that ~90% of the world’s overall energy use and CO2 emissions are from fairly developed countries, which can use nuclear responsibly and (in most cases) already have nuclear programs.  So, we don’t really need for the people of Timbuktu (Mali) to start a nuclear program anyway.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Jul 10, 2013

If PV in Germany is even close to new nuclear (let alone existing nuclear, which Germany is chooing to shut down), why do they still need PV subsidies of 13.5-19.5 cents/kW-hr (even after recent subsidy cuts).  That subsidy alone is greater than the total cost of new nuclear, even assuming things always go as badly as they did for the Finnish plant.  Cost estimates from official govt. agencies (such as the US Energy Information Administration) continue to show solar’s cost as being over double the cost of new nuclear.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 11, 2013

 On the other hand, nuclear energy as it exist turns out not to coexist very well with renewables.”

That depends on the goal.  If zero-fossil power is the goal, then a 60/40 nuclear/renewable split will involve exactly the same energy storage challenge as 100% renewables, except it will be much easier, since there will be less variability driven by renewables, and more dispatchability due to the nuclear.

Natural gas is not a bridge, but a trap, as it discourages us from asking which sustainable energy sources really work best without a fossil fuel crutch.

Paxus Calta-Star's picture
Paxus Calta-Star on Jul 11, 2013

You write

” And while the Areva project is over-budget and behind schedule, the second, third, and fourth builds in France and China have so far been more successful, learning from the first build and allowing for more predictable costs and construction timelines.”

Well, this is not true.  The first French EPR Flamanville 3 was supposed to cost 3.3 billion Euros when it broke ground in 2007 and it was supposed to be completed in 2012.  In 2011 EDF announced it would not start until 2016.  In 2012 EDF announced the cost had risen to 8 billion Euros ( US$10.5 billion) and the Italian project partner dropped out.

Like with Olkiluoto 3 in Finland cost overruns and delays are attributed to “first of kind” issues.  Though when both were being proposed governments were promised the would be models of on time and in budget construction.

Matt Robinson's picture
Matt Robinson on Jul 12, 2013

I beg to differ on your statement that Germany’s Energiewend has been successful.

It’s actually been an abject failure.


Alain Verbeke's picture
Alain Verbeke on Jul 12, 2013
” German Energiewende Successful, But We Still Need Nuclear Energy “


1. Germany’s Energiewende is not yet succesfull, since they have not yet achieved their 39% RE by 2020 target, or their 80% RE by 2050 target. Will they get there? I do not know.

2. Are you that sure that Germans still need nuclear PP ? After all, even the French are revising their objectives, given the real price tag of new NPP’s being built in their country, and the recently discovered horrendously high price tag of decommissioning some old NPP’s built in the 1970’s (yes, the original estimates were way too optimistic and off base compared to current real site costs… sounds familiar ?).

3. You are not mentioning that Germany is now also focusing on energy efficiency, to reduce demand, in order to avoid having to install too much new renewable energy per produced GPD figures. By 2020, every new built building in the E.U. will have to be a net zero energy building, and I still do not see how this will be achieved with a NPP in your basement (yet). So the only solution is to have either solar PV on your roof, solar water heating on your roof, a natural gas fuel cell/stirling engine in your basement, an air or ground/water heat pump for home heating and hot water production, or a biomass pellets furnace, or a passive house type building model, or any other localised solution that I cannot think of yet. In other words, your centralised NPP may find itself with a seriously decreasing market demand, and are you willing to invest Billions to be recouped 30 years down the road, knowing this, and knowing that the German population is aging and dying faster than any other European region, except Spain and Portugal ?  If I was a banker, I would have some though questions to ask you, given that the poly-tic-ians won’t subsidise your NPP, too radioactive with their voters.

4. You are saying that German RE is apparently consisting solely of wind and solar PV. How wrong. They are now focusing on biogas from manure, giving them electricity and hot water 24/7. The same with biomass from agro. The same with city refuse wastes. How about the recent interests in Bavaria on geothermal resources ? Any news on the Norwegian HVDC link to the massive hydropower potential there ? Do not underestimate German creativity, when they put their mind to it.

5. Repowering existing windturbine parks. That is ongoing and profitable for everyone. 5 older windturbines with a 500kW nameplate capacity often do get replaced by one 3MW windturbine, delivering twice as much kWh per year, while taking only 15% of the required ground area, and producing only 10% of the noise of the 5 original turbines. And the demobilised 500kW models are sold to emerging countries who are happy with the bargain, allowing them to experiment on the cheap with such technology.

6. You forget in your article to say that Germany is a big producer of indigenous lignite fuel, subsidising it very heavily, and afterward taxing the CO2 emissions from the lignite burned in coal power plants…  Yes, German government logic in full display. Boondoggles, German style.

7. You ar correct to laugh at their current use of coal power plant power, while dismantling their NPP park. However, let the Germans try it without NPP’s, given that they have very serious RE targets to achieve, basically put in stone. Why be so adamant that they have to stay with nukes? What will you say, if they manage to pull it off : clsoing their NPP’s and many of their old coal power plants, and getting themselves a very decent RE ratio? After all, it is their money.

8. I have solar PV panels on my roof. And an air/ground water home heating system. My yearly electricity and home heating bill is now = zero, and the PV panels will be paid off by 2020, giving me afterwards free electricity. At night I receive grid electricity produced by EcoPower cvba, 100% sourced from renewable energy, mostly biomass, biogas, wind, some run-of-river hydro, and a lake of animal fats+used cooking oil recycled into biodiesel to power caterpillar electrical gensets….  EcoPower cvba is a small cooperative, supplying 100 000 families spread all over Flanders, in Belgium.

Marijan Pollak's picture
Marijan Pollak on Jul 12, 2013

All that is needed is start of production and use of my WindSolars, combined new CSP Solar with new kind of WPSs. I would be gratefull if information where this support for innovation could be get, which is now surely available as Croatia has become 28th EU Member.

Regards from Homeland of Engineer Nikola Tesla!

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Jul 13, 2013

The cost of “babysitting” nuclear fuel is less than 0.1 cents/kW-hr.  The total cost of final disposal will be ~0.1 cents/kW-hr.  The cost of energy storage is ~100 times that.  You DO understand that the volume of nuclear fuel is negligible; a million times smaller than other waste streams.  Putting this small volume of material in a pool of water or a concrete cask (silo) and monitoring it costs almost nothing,  Eveyone (engineers) understand that energy storage is VERY expensive.

There is absolutely no reason new nuclear plants can not be placed on the sites of old ones.  Radiation levels at sites of decommissioned nuclear plants are negligible.

Geoff Sherrington's picture
Geoff Sherrington on Jul 13, 2013

The article starts badly with a poorly Photoshopped image of several windmills, manipulation undisclosed and therefore in breach of what proper photpgraphers expect. It makes me think “What else in this story is fabricated?”

So, I next read “There’s little doubt that Germany’s renewables programs have been instrumental in driving down balance-of-system costs and promoting innovation across the electric power sector.” Personally, having covered electrical generating costs since the early 1970s, I greatly doubt this assertion. It cannot be true if one considers only the core costs of generation, leaving out the ‘social’ costs like strange insurance arrangements for nuclear, subsidies for wind, special arrangements with other countries to import over borders and so on.

The essential physics of the varous major methods of electricity production have scarcely changed. relative to each other, in 4 decades. If there has been some change, then it is too small to convince engineers to change from one major form to another, all things being equal. Poorly informed politicians might change, but that is a different universe.

You come back, as ever, to the input energy density problem. Germany simply has no long term reason to avoid high-density nuclear energy. But, we have nown that for decades. If you wish to read some official German ideas written by authors on the whacky-baccy, try

I’ll concede that it takes a lot of skill to write 4.6 MB of fairy tales like these. Germany, please direct your troopers to concentrate on reality, not belief and wishful thinking.

Geoff Sherrington's picture
Geoff Sherrington on Jul 13, 2013


The answer to your question about duration of waste storage becomes rather obvious when you visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Jul 14, 2013

The entire cost of the US civilian nuclear waste program is covered by a 0.1 cent/kW-hr fee on nuclear-generated electricity.  This fund is continually audited and monitored for its continued adequacy, and such evaluations continue to show that the 0.1 cent fee will continue to be sufficient.  This is a matter of official record.  Look it up.

Yes, that’s enough to fund a repository and waste management cost on the order of ~$100 billion.  Lots of kW-hrs, and lots of compounding interest over ~50 or more years.  Waste management and disposal is an insignnificant fraction of nuclear’s overall cost, the miniscule volume of the waste having a lot to do with it.

The amount of “useless” land will be negligible (again, compared to that associated with the dumps of all our other vastly more voluminius waste streams).  The waste will be (was to be?) buried ~1000 feet underground, in the middle of the remote US govt. nuclear test site in the Nevada desert.  Not only is the area remote and land not being used anyway, but there is no reason why surface land use (e.g., ranching) could not proceed.

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