nuclearOn 11 March 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 struck the east coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that killed over 15,000 people. Amidst the ruins, as the full scale of the disaster was slowly dawning, media coverage started to focus on the Fukushima nuclear plant, where the reactors had gone into meltdown and were threatening to release huge amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment. For a time, it seemed possible that the only country to have experienced the atomic bombing of its civilian population was going to suffer a nuclear catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl.

Almost six months after the event, the reactors have been cooled with sea-water and it appears the worst-case scenario has been avoided. Nonetheless, the disaster has severely shaken public confidence in nuclear energy. In Italy, a referendum on restarting the country’s nuclear power programme was defeated by a staggering 90% of voters on a turn-out of around 56% – an unambiguous rejection of the technology. Similarly, Germany has announced it will be abandoning nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima.

We’ve received several comments supporting the switch from nuclear to renewable technologies – but what are the risks involved? Are renewable technologies ready to pick up the slack? Or do we face a future of black-outs and uncertain energy security? Certainly, if one looks at the figures for Germany, renewable energy will struggle to fill the gap left by nuclear – and the risk is that more polluting sources of energy (such as coal) might be used instead.

Debating Europe spoke to Will Pearson, energy analyst for the Eurasia Group, to ask him whether renewable technology was ready to replace nuclear:

Not one-for-one. What’s more going to pick up the slack could be natural gas – but that’s going to be a very challenging policy question. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has called this a golden age for gas, but it brings up a whole new set of questions.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about “shale gas” as a possible substitute. Is that a solution to Europe’s energy needs?

Shale gas is a longer term proposition and though one of the policy questions confronting European countries is about how to regulate the industry, gas imports from Russia and Norway or via LNG terminals are more likely to impact markets in the next decade–the policy question here is on gas pricing and supplier country preferences for long-term contracts with oil-indexed pricing. Importing countries in Europe are seeking gas-indexed prices.

But the future looks bright for gas right now? Renewable technologies are going to struggle to replace nuclear in the short-term?

Renewables are not going to be able to replace nuclear in the immediate short-term… In Germany, for example, policy makers say they will focus on being more energy efficient. But really, in the short term, we’re looking at increased imports from the Czech Republic and France which are often nuclear, or coal and gas.

What about coal? Are we going to see an increase in the use of coal as an energy source, with all of the associated costs in terms of pollution?

As far as an increase in the use of coal– in Germany we’ve already seen an immediate increase since reactors were shut down this spring and we’ll continue to see ongoing higher use of coal there in coming years to replace lost nuclear power.

But what about all the legal restrictions on the use of coal? Could we see a loosening of environmental policy across Europe?

I don’t think yet, but let’s say in five years time – if increased output and pressures on demand lead to higher prices. People don’t like paying a lot for energy, and utility prices will rise, so there’s a chance that – fuelled by public pressure – all these policies constricting the use of coal could be unwound. Again, we haven’t seen any sign of that yet. 

How viable, then, is wind technology? In the debate on resource efficiency, we had a comment from Joe Thorpe arguing that:


Wind farms have a habit of producing unwanted energy & no energy when it is most wanted. Again, my taxes should not be wasted on this farce. You have to keep conventional power generating systems running in tandem with wind for when there isn’t any wind, so we are actually wasting energy not saving it.

Is this a valid criticism? Is wind energy a “farce” and a waste of tax-payers’ money?

It depends on the market. Oftentimes it’s true that wind blows stronger at night. You can’t count on wind when you need it. Wind is inherently variable, so there are a lot of organisations looking at storage technologies. There’s pumped hydro, for example, or there could be some game-changing technology that could alter the outlook for wind or solar, but right now that doesn’t exist. Electricity utilities cannot rely in total on wind or solar.

This seems to be a depressing prognosis. Germany, then, despite rejecting nuclear, is going to have to rely more on energy imports from neighbouring countries – in part powered by the very nuclear technology it has publicly abandoned. Worse, it seems like renewable technologies are not yet up to the task of providing for Europe’s energy needs, so more polluting energy sources will have to fill the gap. Will renewables ever be ready to take-over from conventional technologies?

In the near-term, I do think that the share of renewables is going to increase. These things tend to be very incrimental, but a wholesale change of the energy mix is unlikely to occur in the next 20 or 30 years. The overall share of renewables will increase, though. You can’t rule out a system that is based entirely on renewables, but you have to factor in significant technology gains that don’t exist right now. Whether it’s storage technology or transmission, for example. You also need a significant decrease in the cost of these technologies. It’s something that could happen, it’s an exciting thing, and it’s where the funding for research and development is worthwhile.

NOTE: This article was edited on 31 August to clarify some of Will Pearson’s comment on shale gas.

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10 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. Birgit Wachhorst

    Yes, Europe should absolutely abandon nuclear power!! And the French should stop exploiting uranium mines in Nigeria immediately.
    All it takes is political WILL.

    • Debating Europe

      Even if it means greater dependence on coal and natural gas? Or foreign oil imported from autocratic regimes or politically unstable parts of the globe?

    • Michel Maroy

      Nuclear energy can still part of the solution
      (energy independence, no emissions, energy mix ).Altough the citizens and public opinion
      have gained a voice in energy choices for the future .
      The General public should be informed clearly by scientist , engineers and political leaders of all the consequences of the Nuclear choice : dependence , coal

      Moreover The nuclear industry should also
      encourage research in future energies and support the useful renewables

  2. peter schellinck

    It’s clear, nuclear power does not hold all the answers. Diversity is the key to dealing with the world’s renewable energy requirements. But nuclear is remarkably clean, safe and powerful. Fusion is likely to make it even more effective in a few years’ time. It is unfortunate that a single disaster is what sticks in people’s minds when they think of nuclear power, and when they come up in arms against it. If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions, nuclear power is to date our only serious option. Now is the time to invest. With this hot and cold attitude towards nuclear we have frightened students to engage in the related science. Hence, we are ourselves depleting our potential for progress and have hence proven the consequences. Skilled engineers are not embarking on a nuclear career because of fear for future career. If we had not gone through the dislike process of the last decennia we could have already found answers for the waste treatment, efficiency and adequate uranium extraction. At the same time safety issues would have been better understood and implemented. If this would have been the case, the Fukushima nuclear plant would have build higher walls, redesigned the storage, secured independent generators, etc. Like with Chernobyl also here a lot could have been avoided. So, stop pulling out before we have done all we can with what we have and install the alternatives when they are ready. At the same time progress within the application of nuclear science for medical use (radiotherapy, etc) will also be safeguarded!

  3. Anatoly

    This was posted with Carbonwarroom site:

    Any war, including war against carbon emissions, requires weapons. In case of war against carbon emissions, effective tools allowing advantages technical, economic affordability and advance hardware (as in war superiority of hardware and tactic) to win the war.

    Todays hardware – solar and wind will not win the war, delivering only one tenth of installed power capability with huge cost to society, requiring expensive storage to compensate intermittency in energy delivery.

    There only two energy sources can win the war with carbon (other are only helping to achieve goal) and this is nuclear and proposed by myself solution – pressure to energy conversion devices-technology. When I talk pressure, I mean deep water pressure energy storage in lakes and oceans. I invented device for converting this endless, sustainable, high energy intensity source to high torque and rpm rotary motion – mechanical energy, if coupled with generator – electrical energy. For example in 200m depth device 3.5m dia and 3.5m long + generator size able to deliver 1GW (the same amount as nuclear reactor). There will be competition, nuclear already exploring fusion.

    Big advantage of new source of energy is that it can cover also transportation. Deep water devices can compress air driving compressors, or simply sending energy to drive compressors. New type of air engine will convert pressure of air into rotary motion and drive car as today engine or pressure device can produce thrust force to drive car or other type of transport (maybe Mr. Branson rocket, it looks ridicules today, but who knows, maybe engineers will find proper seal to contain pressure of stored air and make it long lasting drive. If pressure remains – also remains rotary motion). We need to accept six dimensions to understand principle of device.

    There are a lot of work ahead, but it is doable, very important for Humanity to proceed. You have experience how to accelerate this development which is suppressed currently for different reasons.

  4. Jennifer Myers

    For humanity, human error can result in horrible radiation lasting centuries. The location doesn’t matter. It Will happen. On the plus side the nuclear meltdown zones, both Chernobyl and fukishama, wildlife has gone back to historic levels . Despite radiation nature does better without humans

  5. salah shohna

    I am against npp anywhere especialy in nondeveloped countries because the risk is very high for the whole world

  6. Anatoly Arov

    Nuclear power originally developed to replace fossill fuels as source of energy and partly for transportation purpose. It has a lot of advantages and big disadvantage as mentioned in comments.
    Digital era even more affects security of operation in addition to natural disasters (Japan), operation human errors (Russia), or considering current world affairs.
    As developer of new energy solutions, I am trying to find new ways to generate energy and power transportation as effective as nuclear. It is very disapointing that there is no support in such efforts. Offered by me solution to increase efficiency of kinetic devices (doble output of wind and water turbines) are ignored. Research in using deep water pressure, elastic and gravitational pressure shutted down. Instead all efforts now concentrated on inefficient intermittent solar and wind, forgetting difference, at least, 1/10 between installed capacity and actual energy output. World should intensify R&D for new solutions, current solutions will not allow to get rid from fossil dependance even we spend all GDP.

  7. william

    could these rather bad events be used for research on planetary exploration, such as on rather dangerous planets were they might have rare minerals or life.

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