The number of nuclear power plants in Germany is steadily declining and it will not change under the current government (CDU and SPD)1. Before the nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011, Germany had 17 working nuclear power plants of which 8 nuclear power plants were switched off directly after the incident2.
Currently, only seven nuclear power plants are operating in Germany, and all of these are to be shut down by 20223. The question is: why is Germany planning such a rapid nuclear phase-out while other countries continue to operate their power plants?
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel decided in 2011 that the events in Fukushima could also occur in Germany anytime. The past government under CDU and FDP, therefore, decided that an immediate nuclear phase-out is essential.4 This leads to the question: was this premature decision justified?
The map of the tectonic plates illustrates the risk of an earthquake:
In 2011, there was an earthquake in Fukushima that led to the formation of a tsunami wave. The tsunami wave triggered a power failure. Due to the power failure, the fuel rods in the nuclear reactor could not continue to be cooled and this led to the meltdown of the nuclear fuel rods. The liquid radioactive fuel then mixed with the water vapor. The elevated temperatures triggered an oxyhydrogen explosion. Therefore, radioactive elements spread in the so-called contamination zone which is why the entire area had to be evacuated.6
Figure 1 reveals that Fukushima is located exactly at the edges of four tectonic plates (plate boundaries): the Pacific plate, the Eurasian plate, the North American plate, and the Philippine plate. Therefore, the risk of an earthquake is very high. If you count the plate boundaries under Germany, you will notice that there are none. Germany lies right on the Eurasian plate. This is why the risk of an earthquake is negligible.
Another reason why a power failure occurred in Fukushima is that the building was flooded with water. In retrospect, it can be said that it was not responsible to build a nuclear power plant right on the East coast of Japan where the tsunami risk is one of the highest in the world.
These points make it clear that it is not a rational decision to take the event in Fukushima as a reason for the German nuclear phase-out.
Next, I would like to talk about the nuclear accident in Chernobyl that happened in the year 1986. This nuclear disaster occurred under the direction of Anatoly Stepanovich Djatlovm who wanted to simulate a power failure in the nuclear power plant. However, the Soviet RBMK-1000 Nuclear Power Plant was not able to handle the low electrical power. Besides, employees violated several safety regulations during the simulation.7 The only thing this accident proves is that we should not save on the quality of nuclear power plants and that we should have more qualified employees to operate nuclear power plants. This incident does not provide proof for banning all nuclear power plants.
Another reason why Chernobyl could never have happened in Germany is that in Germany there are only pressurized and boiling water reactors (light water and heavy water).8 The crucial reason why Chernobyl became such a major disaster is that they used graphite as a moderator. Moderators are used for decelerating neutrons so that they can split atomic nuclei more easily. Without a moderator, the neutrons in uranium would be too fast and would not cause any chain reaction. However, the graphite used in Soviet nuclear reactors has the disadvantage that the void coefficient of reactivity is positive. This means that the bubbles formed at higher temperatures change the neutron multiplication factor k. As the temperature rises, more and more neutrons are formed exponentially which would split the nuclei inside the fuel elements within fractions of a second.9
The light-water reactors used in Germany have the advantage (in contrast to graphite as a moderator) that the light water evaporates when the temperature rises. Since the density is too low in the vaporized state, fewer and fewer neutrons are slowed down enough to be able to split new atom nuclei. The negative void coefficient of reactivity thus prevents a nuclear meltdown.10 The same can be said about heavy water reactors. For example, heavy water is used in the research reactor in Garching.
Another common reason against nuclear power plants concerns the disposal of radioactive waste. Many people claim that it would be irresponsible to store radioactive waste in deep caves. However, one should first ask where the uranium comes from. It is mined in uranium mines. This means that low-dose radioactive atoms are completely natural.
In Germany, there have been some political disputes over the Asse and Gorleben interim storage facilities. The operators of nuclear power plants have not yet received permission to leave nuclear waste there forever.12 However, the fact that there is no permit for final disposal in Germany does not mean that there are no final deposits worldwide.
For example, nature in Africa has built a natural nuclear reactor over billions of years. The natural nuclear reactor is located in the French province of Franceville in the country of Gabon and is called “natural reactor Oklo“. Down there, nature has brewed over four tons of weapons-grade plutonium for over 500,000 years. In the meantime, as much thermal energy has been generated as an artificial nuclear power plant would generate in 4 years. This proves that nuclear power plants occur in nature and that there are also natural radioactive repositories.1314 However, natural nuclear reactors would only be one option for the disposal of nuclear waste.
Another option would be deep borehole disposal. With this technology, one would drill holes several thousand meters deep and stow the radioactive waste there.15
Another innovative idea of final disposal is the injection of nuclear waste into certain subduction zones through deep boreholes. Due to plate tectonics, the earth would transport nuclear waste towards the interior of the earth. As can be seen in figure 3, you can use the Lithosphere to transport radioactive waste into the earth’s interior.
Furthermore, to assess nuclear energy as an energy resource, it is also necessary to examine the alternatives.
First, there are fossil alternatives such as coal power plants, oil, gas and then renewable energies such as biomass, geothermal energy, hydropower, photovoltaics, and wind energy.
In contrast to nuclear energy, all fossil alternatives have the considerable disadvantage of emitting billions of tons of CO2. For example, the German nuclear reactor “Isar 2“ (north of Munich) produces about 11 billion kWh of energy and saves 10 million tonnes of CO2 annually (compared to coal-fired power plants).17
Renewable energy resources, on the other hand, can be divided into two categories. There are energy sources that cause considerable damage to the environment and then those that are largely environmentally friendly.
For example, biomass has the disadvantage that carbon dioxide is emitted during combustion and that the yield is lower than if the fields were covered with photovoltaic modules.18
The problem with wind turbines is that the construction of thousands of wind turbines is subsidized by the state and the majority of the population believes that wind turbines are environmentally friendly.19 But this is not the case. Every year, billions of insects are killed by wind turbines and the number of killed birds is estimated to be around 100,000 per year.20 However, most birds killed by wind turbines are usually picked up by wild animals on the ground before being included in any statistics.21 In this respect, nuclear reactors are more environmentally friendly, because they do not cause direct deaths but only increase the risk of cancer if radioactive elements are not adequately shielded.
The remaining energy resources are geothermal energy, hydropower, and photovoltaics. These energy resources have no significant disadvantage, except that the energy density is very low and the yield rather financially unprofitable. For this reason, renewable energies will continue to be subsidized with billions of euros from taxpayers.23
As you can see, nuclear energy has many advantages over other energy resources. Nuclear power plants offer a constant power output that can supply entire cities. The high energy density ensures high efficiency in a world with a constantly growing population. Many of the often mentioned disadvantages cannot be directly related to nuclear reactors. For example, not all nuclear power plants can explode; this is only possible with very specific types of nuclear reactors under very specific conditions. There are also innovative ideas for final disposal. But instead of promoting innovation, German politicians prefer to go on the offensive and ban all nuclear power plants until 2022 and I think that is a completely wrong decision. It proves that politicians have power over things that they have not fully understood and these actions harm the national economy as well as the freedom of the people. That is why we should instead promote newer nuclear power plants such as Molten Salt Reactors, as they offer considerable advantages in terms of efficiency and safety.24 With these new technologies, it will be possible to supply the enormous electricity needs of the future and guarantee stability and safety at the same time. All this would be possible at electricity prices of less than 10 cents per kWh. For all these reasons, I believe that nuclear power plants are the best energy resource for the future.
As an addition, here is a video comparing the financials of nuclear and gas power plants:
- https://www.daserste.de/information/wissen-kultur/w-wie-wissen/artensterben-116.html, https://www.extremnews.com/nachrichten/natur-und-umwelt/9de01458105c5ff, http://www.hart-brasilientexte.de/2014/11/17/massentod-unterm-windrad-die-welt-energiewende-bluff-und-auser-kraft-gesetzte-naturschutz-gesetze-deutschlands-uraltbekannte-fakten-wer-sie-jahrelang-der-offentlichkeit-verschwieg/, https://www.journalistenwatch.com/2017/04/15/fuer-die-energiewende-gehen-sie-auch-ueber-leichen/