GERMANY: Nuclear Power Fails, And Nobody Notices

  • by Julio Godoy (berlin)
  • Inter Press Service

The plants have between them a 9,000 megawatt (MW) capacity, but Germany generates more electricity than it consumes, and has been exporting some of the surplus to France, which is heavily dependent on nuclear power.

Early this month, three plants shut down automatically due to failures in their transformers. The other four have been out of service for months, and are undergoing expensive repairs.

The breakdowns come at a time when the planned phasing out of nuclear power is under attack. In 2002, the coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens decided that all nuclear reactors would be phased out by 2021.

At the same time, the government launched a massive investment programme in renewable energy, making Germany the leading country in Europe in use of the sun and wind as energy sources.

According to official figures, Germany generates 15 percent of the electricity it consumes from renewable sources. A law passed in 2008 sets a target of generating at least 30 percent of electricity through renewables by 2020.

Additionally, on Jul. 13, a group of large German companies announced a joint investment of 400 billion euros (560 billion dollars) in setting up solar thermal plants in the Sahara, to generate at least 15 percent of all electricity needed in Europe by the year 2020.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Jul. 1 that she would reverse the phasing out of nuclear power if her Christian Democratic Party wins the general election in September, and can form a coalition with the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party. Merkel presently rules in coalition with the SPD.

'Nuclear power remains an indispensable component of the German energy mix,' Merkel told the annual meeting of Atomforum, a group representing the four major German electricity providers, all operators of nuclear power plants.

But now the technical difficulties faced by nuclear power plants and the near redundancy of many appear to be strengthening the case for phasing them out.

'We do not need nuclear power,' environment minister Sigmar Gabriel, leading member of the SPD, and a strong party campaigner against nuclear power, said at a press conference Jul. 27. Gabriel urged Merkel to 'reconsider her position towards this dangerous anachronistic technology.'

The figures provided by the German electricity national grid confirm Gabriel's position. RWE and Vatenfall, two of the four electricity providers, and which run the national grid, say electricity supply even without the seven reactors out of service meets the base load demand.

'Shortage of electricity in Germany? Not today, and not tomorrow,' a spokesperson of Vatenfall told IPS.

According to official figures, Germany's nuclear power reactors generate 22 percent of the country's electricity. Coal-fuelled generators produce 46 percent, and natural gas 12 percent. Oil and other sources generate five percent. Renewables, which include the sun, wind, biomass and hydroelectric power plants generate 15 percent.

Clotilde Levillain, director of the French national grid RTE has said that on Jul. 23 alone France imported about 4,500 MW from Germany, Spain, and Britain. This amounts to the output from five average French nuclear reactors.

France generates 80 percent of its electricity from 58 nuclear power plants, and is most dependent on nuclear energy. Levillain said the deficit in production was due to delays in routine maintenance because of strikes, and due to additional demand as a result of above average temperatures.

'These weeks have been characterised by temperatures two to five degrees Celsius above the average,' Levillain said at a press conference in Paris. 'This increase of temperature represents an increase of electricity consumption of some 400 MW per day.'

In recent years, France has been forced to shut down several of its nuclear reactors during the hottest period of the summer. The high temperature of river waters reduces their cooling effect at the nuclear power plants located mostly along the rivers Seine, Loire, Rhone, Moselle, Meuse, Vienne, Tarn, and Rhine.

This frailty of nuclear energy shows the absurdity of the claim that it might be a solution to global warming, opponents say. 'As the climate warms up, nuclear power plants are less able to deliver,' says Stephane Lhomme, spokesperson for the French anti-nuclear network Sortire du nuclear (Phase out nuclear power).

'Global warming is showing the limits of nuclear power plants, and nuclear power is destroying our environment,' Lhomme told IPS.

The French government has partially derogated environment laws aimed at protecting river fauna and flora in order to allow nuclear power plants to drain excessively hot water into the rivers during the summer. Water at temperatures above 28 degrees Celsius can cause the death of fish and other animals and plants in the rivers.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service