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Nuclear Will Be Necessary for Europe to Meet its Climate Goals

Wolfgang Denk's picture
NGO Energy for humanity

Wolfgang Denk is the current European Director of the NGO Energy for Humanity. By profession he is a mechanical engineer working in the power plant and utilities sector since 2001. He managed...

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  • Dec 20, 2016

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While there is no sense in trying to predict the future of nuclear energy in Europe, the one thing can be claimed for sure – the climate goals and decarbonization of the European society will be practically impossible to achieve if at the same time the role of nuclear is significantly reduced.

Amid continuous debates on the nuclear energy in Europe, it must be admitted that renewable energy will be always only an addition to the existing system, due to the fact that solar and wind capacity cannot be seen as reliable. Thus, the reduction of nuclear energy will lead to a stronger position of conventional plants like coal, lignite and gas plants, which all emit CO2. The best example to prove it is the German case. There are no doubts that the situation in Germany would be better from the ecological and economic point of view if the country left operating its NPPs for a longer time, and numbers point at it. We have a lot of data collected on how things developed there; what is more, different companies conducted research and the results are not pretty. McKinsey, for example, publishes regular «indicators»: the last publication for the first half of 2016 shows that important goals (CO2, costs, reduction of energy use) haven’t been reached at all.[1] The energy transition hasn’t worked as planned.

Shutting down nuclear power plants reduces the amount of low-carbon energy supply, as a consequence, reaching climate targets will be harder. The vision of the NGO Energy for Humanity is to replace fossil fuels with clean electricity. Therefore, all existing nuclear plants as well as new nuclear projects in Europe are important and should be supported, in the same way as new renewables projects. In this regard, Energy for Humanity believes that this Swiss referendum was important for the nuclear energy development in Europe.

On the 27th November Switzerland rejected the Green Party initiative of a quick exit from nuclear energy, which proposed a closure of the country’s five nuclear power plants after 45 years in operation. These results demonstrated that the Swiss people were not ready for a phase-out of nuclear power in a disorderly and fast manner with three nuclear units to be shut in next year, but also meant another very important signal – the majority of the people trust the operators of the Swiss nuclear plants. However, it is not yet time to make a clear conclusion from the vote outcome that the advantages of nuclear energy are fully recognized, because different interpretations of these results exist. In fact, some of the people who voted against the green initiative are, nevertheless, in favour of the Energy Strategy 2050, which outlaws the construction of new nuclear power plants. As it is foreseen by the Strategy, the existing nuclear plants will be replaced with new renewables, imports and potentially new gas turbine power plants in Switzerland. Despite, the Strategy can also be voted on in May 2017 if the Swiss peoples party SVP manages to collect a necessary number of signatures. Then also the «prolonged» nuclear phase-out could be rejected by the Swiss population.

Thus, while there is no yet a clear picture of the future of nuclear energy, time for making a decision has been gained after the Swiss vote, and other countries may follow its example. Nuclear energy means to fight climate change, succeed in reducing our impact on environment and provide security of supply. Together with hydro power and renewables, nuclear energy must play a vital role a targeted European clean energy mix.

[1] :

Photo Credit: Tony Webster via Flickr

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 20, 2016

Wolfgang, as usual the Swiss have analytical heads on their shoulders. But without a head of state like America’s president, who is in charge of tweeting/insulting/whining?

You must have six-year-olds who qualify.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Dec 20, 2016

It’s far cheaper to reach 100% renewable without nuclear as:
– nuclear is baseload and cannot complement variable wind & solar;
– nuclear is exceptional expensive. It is far more effective for the climate to invest in solar & wind.

– nuclear leaves unsolved waste problems to, and damages health of next generations;
– nowadays nuclear also emit 2 -10 times more CO2eq per KWh than wind & solar.

the reduction of nuclear energy will lead to a stronger position of conventional plants …. The best example to prove it is the German case

Since the start of the Energiewende the position of convential also reduced significantly, though less than nuclear:
2000: Renewable 7%; all fossil 63%; nuclear 29%
2015: Renewable 29%; all fossil 53%; nuclear 14%
Fossil reduction will get real steam when all nuclear is out in 2023.

There is no doubt that 100% renewable electricity can be reached. Denmark will reach 100% renewable regarding electricity in 2040 and regarding all energy in 2050.
Germany is following.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 20, 2016

High penetration renewables is much more difficult that most advocates realize. In a recent study of super-grids spanning the US, our weather agency NOAA, along with University of Colorado at Boulder generated the following graphs, which shows that when renewables compete against fossil gas, very high gas prices are required to push renewables above the 50% mark, and higher penetrations are practically hopeless. They considered energy storage, but they found negligible use, even at prices several times lower than available today.

The top graph shows that a large fleet of fossil fuel power plants will always be necessary for backup. Renewables are a great solution for stakeholder who desire to lock-in a market for fossil fuels. (It will still be easy for grid-connected small areas like Denmark to claim to be 100% renewable, by exporting excess renewable generation, then later importing an equal or less amount of mixed/fossil generation, but this is neither clean nor sustainable).

Here is the (paywalled) NOAA UC Boulder paper itself. The graphs and the other background details are available in the free supplement here.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on Dec 21, 2016

Nuclear is cheap when scaled, as history and recent examples in Asia shows. Nuclear waste is easy to handle and does not damage anyone’s health. Nuclear life cycle emits far less CO2 than solar.

The Energiewende is a disaster. Fossil reduction will stall when all nuclear is out, since more renewables then will just produce when there’s already too much renewables.

There’s plenty doubt that 100% RE electricity can be reached. Nobody has been even close to showing that without great hydro resources. Denmark will not reach 100% renewable electricity in 2040. Only reason it can have 40% wind today is that it relies on balancing by big neighbors. That doesn’t scale to the entire grid.

Ceterum censeo Bentvels esse maledictus.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on Dec 21, 2016

In Germany wind+solar deliver 22%. Still not enough intermittency for its small pumped storage facil;ites to make a profit. Germany continues to add ~5GW wind+solar to its grid (70GW on av), as it’s scientists don’t expect any problem until wind+solar reach 35-45% share which is expected in the 2025-2030 period.
At that time the Germans expect that PtG will be ready for competitive large scale rollout.

As Germany is >10yrs ahead, USA can move ahead with adding more wind+solar wihout a problem until at least 2035, and lift on the rsults of the development work of Germany.

Note that the study you refer didn’t consider much future developments.
Even not wellknown developments such as bigger wind turbines with their >50% Cap. Factor which reduce the intermittency problem greatly.

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