Germany Follows Own Non-Nuclear Energy Path

Thursday, January 17, 2008

If Germany can prove that fighting climate change doesn't necessarily require nuclear power, other nations will follow. But if Germany fails, a nuclear renaissance may result, says DW's Jens Thurau.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel had his chance to shine in December at the Bali climate conference. No country, the energetic Social Democratic politician says, is similarly engaged in protecting the climate as Germany.

By 2020 the country will reduce its emissions of greenhouse gasses by 40 percent by producing more energy from renewable sources, by saving energy, by investing billions in building renovations, by using energy from clean coal and gas power stations. And without using nuclear power. By 2021 all 17 of Germany's nuclear power plants -- one after another -- will be shut down.

When compared to other industrialized nations, that decision makes Germany more and more of an outsider. A new nuclear power plant is being built in Finland. France, the United States and Japan also have plans for new nuclear power stations. Great Britain recently decided to put more of an emphasis on nuclear power. These governments argue that the international community's goals, which climate change researchers still call insufficient, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can only be met with CO2-free nuclear power.

Still, there are good reasons for German to turn its back on nuclear power. Some 440 nuclear power stations in 31 countries create about 16 percent of electricity worldwide. More than 1,000 new nuclear power stations would have to be built to order to reduce the greenhouse effect with nuclear power -- that's not foreseeable.

But even more importantly, investment in new nuclear power stations is expensive, though the necessary raw material -- uranium -- is cheap. The expense means that nuclear power plants require long operating times to be profitable for investors, which sets the means of decades-worth of energy production in stone and hinders investment in non-fossil energy production.

But if what climate researchers are saying is true, then there need to be recognizable reductions in greenhouse gasses by 2020 in order to save the climate. This is exactly where many countries see a role for nuclear energy: as a transition to a solar age offering CO2-free energy production in the next 20 to 50 years.

Germany has, at least for the moment, taken an uncompromising path: for lots of environmental technology and against nuclear power.

The next few years will be decisive. If Germany proves that both an engaged climate policy and phasing out nuclear power are not mutually exclusive, then other countries will follow. If Germany fails, there will be an increasing nuclear energy, at least in industrialized nations, India, China and Brazil. In the world's poorer countries, particularly in Africa, nuclear power is still too expensive anyway.

Jens Thurau is a DW-TV correspondent and environment expert (sms)

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