Political Meltdown

newradiationsymbol_300×200.gifIt’s been a bad month for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It all started rather well. Although not all media outlets were as fawning as Spiegel-Online Merkel did enjoy international praise after the G8 summit in June.

She took that momentum into a German energy summit held in at the beginning of July in order to discuss how CO2 targets can be met. At the summit, it became clear that Merkel planned to pursue one of her long term goals, rolling back the current plan to completely phase out nuclear power in Germany by the year 2021.

There are legitimate reasons to discuss using nuclear power at least as a bridge to achieve lower CO2 emissions while pursuing longer term solutions. Even if no new power plants were built, a very strong argument could be made to keep existing plants in the net. While it is unlikely that she would be able to convince either the SPD or a huge majority of the German public, it was probable that Merkel had planned to put nuclear power back on her party’s platform in time for the next elections.

At this point, a little background is probably necessary for those not familiar with German energy policy.

In the summer of 2001, after long negotiations, then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, joined with his coalition partners, the Greens, to in push through a deal to completely eliminate nuclear energy from Germany by 2021 based on a similar plan already in place in Sweden.

Now, depending on whose side you are on, this can be either a good or a bad choice.

On the one hand, it is difficult to deny that there are problems with the current nuclear industry. In Germany, as in many countries, a final repository for nuclear waste has yet to be found. Massive protests are staged every time nuclear waste is re-imported after being processed in France to prepare it for final storage and transported to the interim facility in Gorleben. Another issue is the increasing age of nuclear power plants in Germany. The youngest reactor in the German mix is almost 20 years old, and most were build in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Finally, in an age of terrorist threat, real or imagined, nuclear power stations do make nice targets.

On the other side of the issue stands the elimination of carbon dioxide producing power plants. (Indeed the fly ash produced by coal power plants has been said to be more radioactive because naturally occurring radioactive elements are concentrated in the ash. Of course this is only a problem for coal from certain areas and is something to think about (but not worry about) the next time you spend a lot of time in a cinderblock building.) Lastly, one can make the claim that a normally operating nuclear power plant releases almost no measurable radiation into the environment..

Finally It should also be noted that, following his term as Chancellor, Schröder accepted a job working for the Russian energy supplier Gazprom to build a pipeline to the EU bypassing the eastern European countries. A pipeline that will also supply gas for – you guessed it – non-nuclear power plants. It was a move sharply criticised at the time.

But back to Merkel. As far as I know, alone among top western politicians, Merkel has a science PhD – in physical chemistry. That perhaps explains much of her understanding of the urgency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions – she understands the science and not just the policy summaries.

But she also understands politics. And that’s why she’s having a very bad month.

It all started on June 28 with two seemingly unrelated incidents at two different nuclear reactors in Germany,both run by the energy company Vattenfall.

One, Krümmel, had a transformer fire, another reported a minor leak. Later it came out that the transformer fire had been far more serious that first admitted. Plant operators at one point had been forced to put on gas masks. Information has come to light showing that plant operators might have been trying to increase output which ultimately lead to the fire. The “leak” turned out to be a pipe which had exploded due to a hydrogen build up. Vattenfall also doesn’t have a great safety record with two different reactors in Sweden being forced to shut down due to ‘malfunctions.’ They also have a reputation for trying to coverup or downplay events that happen at their reactors.

Merkel was noticeably irritated. According to Spiegel Online,

“It does make me angry, and it’s an experience I had while environment minister, when (safety) regulations are not actually followed from day to day,” Merkel, who led Germany’s ministry of the environment under former chancellor Helmut Kohl, told German television on Tuesday. “That needs to be cleared up, and I mean strictissimi (i.e. according to the letter of the law), otherwise we can’t guarantee ongoing safety.”

Sigmar Gabriel, current environment minister in Merkel’s cabinet, has also been vocally critical of the way Vattenfall has handled the recent reactor mishaps. On Wednesday, he once again took a swipe at the company, saying: “It is a major loss of face for the company. They are campaigning for trust in atomic energy, they should really be the first to say, ‘We are going to lay everything on the table, let’s clear it up.’ Instead, all we see from them is this strange carrying on.” The state of Schleswig -Holstein, where the reactors are located, is looking into whether the company should lose its license to operate nuclear reactors.

Instead of being able to use “glowingly” green energy as part of her next campaign, Merkel will probably have to scrap it. As a matter of fact the Social Democrats, long quite on the issue are becoming far more vocal. From an excellent overview also from Spiegel Online,

Suddenly the Social Democrats, especially Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, see themselves justified in taking the position that nuclear energy is a “risky technology.” “German nuclear power plants are the safest worldwide,” Gabriel said acerbically last week, “aside from the occasional explosion or fire.”
And the public is starting to worry as well. Perhaps for a reason. The article continues with,

The reason for the change in thinking is clear. Whereas most of the some 130 reactor incidents reported annually in Germany are minor and go unnoticed, smoke pouring out of a transformer as happened in Krümmel tends to attract attention. It took the fire department hours to extinguish the blaze. Even worse, the plant operator’s claim that a fire in the transformer had no effect o n the reactor itself proved to be a lie.

In short, the incident has made it clear that nuclear energy is by no means the modern, well organized high-tech sector portrayed until recently by politicians and industry advocates. Indeed, the frequency of problems occurring at Germany’s aging reactors is on the rise. Just as old cars will eventually succumb to rust, the country’s nuclear power plants, built in the 1970s and 80s, are undergoing a natural aging process.

The problems are complicated by maintenance and supervision issues among aging and unmotivated employees. A dangerously lackadaisical attitude has taken hold that is making Germany’s nuclear power plants increasingly unsafe. Most incidents to date have proven to be relatively minor, and yet each new incident becomes yet another link in a chain of problems with the potential to end in a serious accident.,

But the problems aren’t only related to safety issues. In today’s increasingly competitive energy (and management) marketplace, companies are increasingly willing to take risks to improve profit margins.

Industry insiders complain that for some time power plant operators have been attempting to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their old, and for the most part depreciated, reactors. In recent years, for example, the owners of the Krümmel nuclear power plant have invested about €50 million in technical improvements to increase the efficiency of the plant’s turbines, a move that has brought a 7 percent improvement in net output. But these alleged improvements have also increased stress on secondary systems such as the plant’s transformer, systems that were apparently not retrofitted. In fact, this may have been the cause of the Krümmel fire. According to Günther Pikos, a nuclear expert from the western German city of Düren, “the transformer was apparently already damaged by a string of earlier incidents.” Pikos believes that this, combined with the increase in turbine output, was what ended up overloading the transformer.

Finally, perhaps just so Merkel gets the point, yesterday’s earthquake in Japan caused not only a transformer fire but a coolant leak into the Sea of Japan as well.

What all this means is that nuclear power just got much more unpopular in Germany. The long term effects will probably be minimal but Merkel will likely be forced to shelf plans to extend the life of nuclear power until after the next elections.

Any attempt to right now to try to lower carbon dioxide emissions in Germany using the “nuclear option” is, at least politically, radioactive.

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