What's it take to get off nuclear power?

To get off nuclear power, Germany plans to make its electricity system 80% renewable by 2050. That's not going to be easy. Just to reach the first milestone of that goal—35% renewable capacity by 2020—the country will have to build 2,800 miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines. Although, one significant thing missing from this story: How many miles of transmission lines Germany would have normally built during that time. Even so, watch this space for financing debates, NIMBY wars, and what promises to be some really fascinating problem solving. (Via Michael Noble and thanks to Chris Baker!)


  1. Any discussion of Germany going ‘nuclear free’ needs to address how much energy does Germany buy or will be buying from neighboring France, which is about 80% nuclear.

  2. I used to think the Germans were sensible pragmatic people. This blows that preconception out of the water. Getting off fossil fuels makes sense but getting off nuclear at this point is an idiotic waste of money!

    1. You might change your tune if it was your kids being exposed to 20 milliSieverts when they go to school every day.

      Nuclear was always a very expensive, clumsy way to boil water, starting in the 1950s, when a GE nuclear engineering chief admitted as much. Without cold war subsidies it would never have gotten off the ground. Without continued suppression of news about decades of leaks, releases and dozens of melt-downs (yes even in France), anyone who claimed it to be safe (like those in Japan) would be laughed out of town.

      Today nuclear remains the most expensive way to build new plants, and all the promises about waste disposal have failed to be kept. There’s no way to build enough nukes to replace fossils … even if we could afford them at a (lowball) $10B each with a 10-year lead time.

       $1.4 billion a year … or $10.4 billion a year … is a much better deal. I predict that the US — currently going through a period of what Krugman calls “a kind of inverse miracle of intellectual failure” — will fail to address the issue. And that Germany will achieve what it has set out to do, as it leads the EU into a survivable and profitable future.

      1. “You might change your tune if it was your kids being exposed to 20 milliSieverts when they go to school every day.”

        That’s the case *now*, because I live within 50 miles of a coal-fired power plant.  Well, maybe not as much as 20mS but it’s still significantly hot because of the coal plant.

        No, clean coal will not fix this.

  3. @mentat Germany is actually being highly pragmatic in this. Germany knows first-hand how hard it can be handle nuclear waste. Add to that the dangers nuclear power plants pose to a densly populated country like Germany and it makes perfect sense to aim for renewable energy. Plus, the investments the government needs to do to achieve their goals will be a great boost for scientific research into renewable energy and will make it easier and cheaper for other countries to make the shift.

    1. Wouldn’t it be more pragmatic to let someone else invest in development and buy the result? Moving to renewable power may be a good idea, but I don’t think you are making much of a case for “pragmatism.”

  4. What is really going to happen is that they will miss all their targets, and just end up buying all their power from France, who will generate it using nuclear. This is simply NIMBY, pure and simple. However the price they are going to pay for NIMBY is essentially power dependance on France, not something any independent nation should aspire to. If their cool with that then whatever. To me its a scary thought.

  5. Look out especially for the NIMBY wars that the Green party is fighting all over Germany against transmission lines, pumped storage and whatever it takes to actually use renewable energy. They are by far the loudest and most active group in German NIMBYism.

  6. Nuclear power is the safest and cleanest power we have available. A basic course in physics would tell you that. Coal powered plants release 50x the radioactivity of a nuclear plant. More people died this year from a single organic farm in Germany than from nuclear power in the last 20 years, not to mention the deaths due to coal.

    As to the waste, there are ways to reprocess the waste that reduces it by 90%. The problem is the politics of reprocessing since it recovers plutonium.

    Most of the reports of the danger in Japan are FUD. Read the reports from knowledgeable sources such as MIT for the real picture. I saw one headline about dangerous levels of radioactivity detected outside the 20 mile zone, went to the source they sited and is reported slightly above background levels detected.

    1. I remember looking at safety figures a few years ago (apologies that I can’t remember the source) but the number of deaths/MWh was higher in wind farms than it was for nuclear, same goes for lifetime carbon footprint/MWh that was higher in wind farms than nuclear just to put it in perspective. Also a useful reminder that there aren’t any “zero carbon” forms of energy yet when taking the entire lifecycle of the systems into account.

    2. “Nuclear power is the safest and cleanest power we have available. A
      basic course in physics would tell you that. Coal powered plants release
      50x the radioactivity of a nuclear plant. More people died this year
      from a single organic farm in Germany than from nuclear power in the
      last 20 years, not to mention the deaths due to coal.”

      Really?  Cause I took a bit of physics, and I don’t think this got covered. 

    3. “Nuclear power is the safest and cleanest power we have available”

      Ridiculous statement.

      Nuclear is cleaner than wind or hydro?  Safer than wind or geothermal?  Do you work in the nuclear industry by any chance?

  7. Nuclear waste is at least 10x the problem it should be because governments refuse to allow building sensible reactors and allow reprocessing of waste.

    1. Reprocessing waste is great, but… is there any way of reprocessing waste that doesn’t lead to proliferation? And I don’t mean politically stopping proliferation, I mean physically stopping it. 

  8. or denmark. they’d have to buy wind power from denmark. everyone knows that wind power electrons spin instead of radiate like ordinary nuclear electrons, so germans would have to have two appliances for everything, one for france-fail electricity and one for denmark-fail electricity. omg.

  9. (Is there a paragraph – stealing monster around here?)

    > Nuclear power is the safest and cleanest power we have available.

    No, that’s not true. You’re mixing up reality and possibility. It is neither as safe nor as clean it could be. Part of the reason is lack of regulation to implement safety features. Fukushima Daiichi had the third worst safety record in the world prior to the accident. The other two
    that were worse are in India and (surprise) the USA.

    The technology of the newer nuclear reactors is as old as the planning stages of Space
    Shuttle. The technology of the somewhat older reactors dates back all the way to the Apollo program. This stuff is old and has some serious flaws.

    The most serious (hydrogen explosions, unfiltered release of contaminated steam from the containment) can be dealt with by additional equipment (that wasn’t present in Fukushima Daiichi) but in the end, you need to replace them by modern reactors and technology that isn’t based on reactors that were build to provide power for submarines and aircraft carriers and then scaled up. But reactors build for civilian use on terra firma and not in the sea.

    There is better technology around, especially safer technology that doesn’t have highly pressurized vessels and water steam, which can blow up if they overheat and that can’t produce hydrogen explosions because there is no water around (and thus no hydrogen) to begin with.

    You can build reactors in such a way that they shut down all by themselves when they overheat and don’t need extra cooling after shutting down. That was demonstrated on April 5th 1986 – two and half weeks before the Chernobyl accident …

    Molten-salt reactors, that can be build to have all the aforementioned characteristics, also won’t leave such a large amount of highly radioactive fission products inside the reactors while they are
    operating. (Instead, the amount is reduced by 98-99%.) Which is certainly the most important safety consideration of them all. Something that isn’t inside the reactor in the first place, can’t get out of the reactor during an accident.

    1. Also keep in mind the reactors that we have now were PURPOSELY engineered to produce Plutonium that could be harvested from the spent fuel and turned into bombs.  

      That’s why the government poured all support $ into engineering very few designs, and why those designs have changed very little… to ensure the first part of the decay chain was taken care of in the civilian sector.  Then, theoretically, the gov’t would take back the spent fuel and centrifuge it to extract materials for warheads.

      Now, since the gov’t isn’t in the business of making warheads anymore, “spent” fuel sits in pools right near aging reactors. Spent fuel, meaning 97% spent.  (There really is nothing neutralized and inert about them, whatsoever.)  These pools need constant monitoring, while a dry storage in a steel cask with neutron absorption could be used and is safer.

      It’s a highly wasteful process, no matter how you slice it.  It could totally be re-engineered a thousand different ways.

      But we don’t.

      I see why, but it’s evil.

      1. PWRs aren’t good for making weapons grade plutonium because the long burn time of months to years increases the amount of Pu-240 which can lead to pre-detonation of bombs and reduces their yield.

        The British Magnox and AGR reactors were designed to produce plutonium; in the case of the former, for weapons, and in the latter case, for the cancelled fast breeder reactor programme. these reactors allowed fuel elements to be removed from the reactor for reprocessing whilst the reactor was running, so they could be removed after only a few weeks when there was very little Pu-240 in the fuel.

        As the British have learned to their cost, reprocessing is economic madness. The MOX plant at Sellafield was closed only this week and now no one has any idea what Britain can do with the 100 tonnes of plutonium it is sitting on.

        1. True.  You are 100% correct.  But this fact was not known scientifically until after 1962, and a prohibition of using spent fuel in warheads was not enacted into law until 1983. (United States, not UK). By then, the engineering was already complete for BWRs and scaling up nuclear sub PWRs to civilian use (1950’s) and then to build plants on a mass scale (1960’s and 70’s), and all the while to keep the spent fuel in the government loop for whatever needs it might later devise.

          All I’m saying is that we have what we have now for a reason that was thought up in a government meeting room sometime around 1951, and we will live with those consequences for thousands of years.

    2. That was demonstrated on April 5th 1986 – two and half weeks before the Chernobyl accident

      They did it in the 70s at the Oak Ridge National Lab. It reportedly worked like a charm. The guys there didn’t like to work weekends, so they’d shut the reactor down on Friday night, and fire it up again Monday morning. In traditional reactors, this cycle takes months.

  10. This planet has more natural gas and frozen methane than we will ever know what to do with it all.  We are not thinking clearly on this issue!!!

    1. There was a time when it was thought that the world had more oil than we could ever know what to do with.

    2. Forget the methane – it is thawing and will be driving AGW to a place where humanity will disappear.  Although, if we could capture it (impossible) and burn it we would be better off than letting it escape to the atmosphere, where it is 25-75 times more potent than CO2. There are more megatons of methane about to thaw than all the CO2 mankind has yet released.  The CO2 will merely change our civilization for the worse.  That methane, though, will likely kill almost all of us.

      As for burning natural gas –  you really don’t seem to understand the greenhouse effect, and where this planet will be in ninety years, do you?  Thinking clearly?  You don’t seem to be thinking at all.

  11. The actual question you’re looking for is “What can be researched to make nuclear, a safe energy source, even safer?” or “What’s it take to get people to stop being stupid about nuclear?”

      1. Yeah. I’ve been in India. The middle class is considerably better educated than comparable Americans.

  12. Germany is making a decision… To not be a world superpower. Guess they were tired of being industrious and cutting edge. What happens when France hikes its cost or stops selling to them? 

    Do the scientists and experts not have a voice in Germany anymore? Politics dont make good science. 

  13. Actually CANDU reactors were not designed to make plutonium. I think they were specifically designed so that they would not. Also they are more flexible as to what you can use for fuel. They are also safer from what I understand. They are however expensive and complex.

    It was actually the Indians that modified the CANDU reactor to make plutonium called CANDU derivatives. I believe this is why Canada stopped selling CANDU reactors to India.

    The German situation with the transmission lines and the pumping reminds me of the of off shore wind project off the shore of Toronto. A developer has been ready to do it for decades. However an “Environmental” group lobbied and had the project canned. However on closer inspection, this well funded “Green” lobby group was really just a cottage association and land owners association. Those people that belong also have multimillion dollar cottages along the shore, and don’t want the eyesore of wind turbines disturbing their million dollar views, or effecting their estate valuations.

    Bottom line, I think in many cases, at least politically, Green isn’t always as “Green” as you think it is.

  14. Sometimes “Green” is just a convenient politically correct and expedient way to push your own agenda.

  15. Thanks to Obama embracing it, Democrat organizations all over the country have added nuclear power to their “clean energy” platforms. Pisses me off… Democrats can get behind nuclear power, but can’t come together on, say, legalizing pot. Wtf. Reefer Madness > China Syndrome?

  16. I dunno why we don’t just drill holes down to the mantle.  There is more energy down there than we could ever possibly use.  10^9x more than methane and natural gas!!!

    1. Because if past performance has show us, drilling down that far is a super dangerous prospect and can cause massive damage…

  17. People talk about how safe nuclear is, but the evidence is in overt contradiction.  I know of no solar or wind farms where all residents have had to evacuate (to a radius of miles).

    Is it not true that no private insurance companies will touch nuclear plants?

    Tritium leaks in New England, anyone?

    As soon as Germany announced its plan to abandon nuclear, some pro-nuke people were on bb claiming that the official plan was to buy energy from france.  now we see the plan is to go 80% renewable.  If they pull this off, what argument will be left?

    acting like the opposition is stupid doesn’t actually add anything to your argument.  i think decentralized, renewable energy (without, you know, the nuclear waste), is a far more elegant solution.

    Good luck, Deutchland.  Good luck and godspeed.

    ps: nuclear (short of fusion) is also a non-renewable.  if you claim we cannot get by on renewable alone, where will we be when you’ve mined out all the radioactives?

    1. “People talk about how safe nuclear is, but the evidence is in overt
      contradiction.  I know of no solar or wind farms where all residents
      have had to evacuate (to a radius of miles).”

      Have you seen the miles of uninhabitable (but inhabited) land and water in China where they mine the neodymium, a great proportion of which is used for wind farms? How about the effects of cadmium production for solar cells? No, of course you haven’t. I believe the technical term is NIMBY.

  18. Nuclear waste isn’t that much of a long term problem.  Lets just launch the waste into the sun 100 years from now via the space elevator made from carbon nano-tubules.

  19. germany might also consider reverting to a society similar to the one they had during the time of the roman empire, when they really did have a sustainable energy infrastructure

  20. Am I the only one who sees comment threads like this and is reminded of all those ‘Healthcare Reform’ town hall meetings we had here in the US a while back?

  21. …exactly.
    And in 20 years, we’ll be complaining about our backward renewable energy companies, which can’t compete with other nations. At least they won’t bail-out worthy.

  22. Comparisons between the future power strategies of Germany and France remind me of the story behind the Maginot Line. France lived in the past while Germany embraced new strategies. Same thing all over again with a similar outcome I predict.

  23. @boingboing-e23b16e83342d08d0d3ef4eeed9d3299:disqus  hit the nail on the head.  Ideal nuclear power bears little resemblance to what we actually have.  It seems to me that the BB commentariat includes a lot of pro-nuclear (and “anti-anti-nuclear”) folks who are defending an idealized version of nuclear power, while the minority are criticizing nuclear power as it has been implemented in the real world.

    Talk about pebble bed and thorium reactors all you want — it doesn’t change the fact that the nuclear power plants we now have are subject to lax government oversight, corporate cost-cutting, mismanagement and corruption, political games about waste disposal, etc., etc., etc.

    If God built and ran nuclear power plants, they would function perfectly.  Unfortunately, they are built and run by humans.  That’s where most of the problems come from.

    Yes, other power generation systems have their problems too, and are subject to the same human failings.  But few if any other systems are as “brittle” — i.e., as capable of sudden catastrophic failure producing enormous contamination and threat to human life — as nuclear.

  24. Bravo to Germany for being industrious and cutting edge. And of course if they end up solving problems that results in patents, they end up pulling ahead of the rest of the world when we have to buy their solutions.

  25. The question is, however, what consequences follow from that fact.

    And for me at least, the consequences should be to improve upon nuclear power because there is a lot that can be improved. But the discussion for the most part is completely ignoring all understanding of natural laws and technology – not just nuclear power generation, but all forms of power generation (because those are the alternatives) and especially the how of power consumption (because that’s what we do power generation for).

    In the end, the whole discussion is reduced to pure absurdity. It reminds me of Monty Python – Loretta (Stan) struggling for “her” right to have a baby despite not being a woman and not having a womb.

    And btw when things are the other way around, the result isn’t any better. Spaceflight is almost exclusively centered around technology and almost everybody is ignoring economics or longterm political aims.

    1. Those people have to commit mass suicide now. Any economist will tell you that new jobs are never available, and never created.

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