Future generations will look back at our flirtation with the most unsustainable and most expensive form of energy production – nuclear power – and curse us for the mess we have left them. But the end is beginning to be in sight for nuclear.
Last weekend Germany completed its promised nuclear phase out, switching off its last three nuclear power stations. A phase out by 2022 was agreed in 2002. Then Angela Merkel’s government decided to delay it until 2036. Months later, in 2011, the disastrous meltdowns and explosions at the reactors at Fukushima forced a return to the 2022 commitment. After a short delay because of the threat to gas supplies from the war in Ukraine, the control rods were inserted and the nuclear reactions at the Emsland, Isar II and Neckarwestheim II plants were finally brought to a halt for the last time on Saturday.
Increased energy efficiency and the rapid growth of renewable energy more than offsets the energy which was generated by these plants. Just the amount of new renewable electricity entering the grid in recent years is the equivalent of three nuclear plants and by 2030 renewables in Germany will be producing the same power as 30 nuclear plants.
The phase out in Germany is the result of decades of protests, with millions of people taking action to oppose new reactors, reprocessing plants, radioactive waste storage plants and nuclear transport routes. Together they stopped the planned reprocessing plant in Wackersdorf in 1989. In 2005 export of nuclear waste was banned. And recently the candidate site for long-term storage of nuclear waste at Gorleben was deemed unsuitable, leaving no solution for the most radio-active waste.
Meanwhile France struggles on with an aging and ailing fleet of reactors, new reactors that are still being built 11 years after they were supposed to be finished and a power company that the French government is having to fully nationalise, mainly because of its nuclear debts.
Ironically German power exports to France jumped to their highest level in more than three decades last year because more than 40% of French reactors were out of action.
Recent UK energy announcements gave continued support for nuclear power, although this was mostly in the form of things which have been said before and there was no new money promised. The Hinkley Point C reactors, being built by France’s EDF, are now expected to start operating ten years later than planned, with a price tag nearly double the original £18bn. The search for a store for the most radioactive waste continues, made much harder by Cumbria County Council’s rejection of the idea ten years ago.
Of course in Scotland we already produce all the electricity we need from renewables. It would be crazy to think of building more reactors here when the same money would get much more green energy, much quicker, yet Labour, in thrall to the nuclear unions, are pushing just that idea. Even if you don’t care about leaving nuclear waste for the next thousand generations of people to deal with, nuclear is too slow, too risky and too expensive to play any part in our future energy plans.
Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant