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Touched off by the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a number of countries — including industrial powerhouses Germany and Japan — announced they will move away from nuclear power. So how will they meet their future energy needs? Right now, there are more ambitious goals for expanding renewable sources than there are details of how this can be done. We explore options countries are considering, and the impact their plans may have on the future of nuclear power.
- Phil Sharp President, Resources for the Future
- Arne Jungjohann Director for the Environment and Global Dialogue Program, The Heinrich Böll Foundation (Washington Office)
- Richard Lester Head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The massive wave that crippled Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant has created a different sort of ripple effect across the rest of the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn recent weeks, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia and Germany have announced plans to phase out or scrap completely their nuclear power programs. Perhaps most surprising was Germany's announcement that it would close all 17 of its nuclear power plants by the year 2022. That seems like a tall order for just 11 years, but Germans say that the sun, wind and water will provide 38 percent of its power in less than a decade.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn Japan, though, the choices are a lot more limited. So how will these industrial power houses move forward? What will be the impact on their neighbors and on the future of nuclear power? Joining us in studio is Arne Jungjohann. He is director of the Environment and Global Dialogue Program at The Heinrich Boll Foundation. He's a former senior advisor for the Green Party in the German Bundestag. Arne, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ARNE JUNGJOHANNThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Phil Sharp, he is president of Resources for the Future. He's also a former member of Congress who represented Indiana as a Democrat from 1975 to 1995. Congressman Sharp, glad you could join us.
MR. PHIL SHARPThank you very much.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios in Cambridge, Mass. is Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richard Lester thank you for joining us.
MR. RICHARD LESTERYou're very welcome.
NNAMDIWe know why Japan decided to scale back its nuclear energy program, but Germany's decision was a little more baffling since just a few months ago Germany's chancellor announced plans to extend the life of the country's nuclear program. So Arne, can you give us some perspective on Angela Merkel's announcement last week?
JUNGJOHANNI think when you look at Germany, there are two factors coming into the game, why the German government is going down this route. And for the one side, that's the assessment after Fukushima and the role of nuclear power, the place of nuclear power in the energy mix. There's a new risk assessment in Germany that is basically saying if a country like Japan, such a high tech country that is known for its expertise, if they are not able to handle a nuclear catastrophe like Fukushima, then likely hardly any other country is.
JUNGJOHANNSo even though the risk of a nuclear accident in Germany or in other countries might be small, the economic consequences of this could be disastrous for a country like Germany. So that's one reason why Germans in particular are strongly against nuclear, I think. But the other is that the alternative is so much more visible in Germany. The renewal energies are a tremendous economic success over the last ten years.
JUNGJOHANNGermany has ramped up, it has tripled all renewable energies in the country. We know it is 17 percent. There are 370,000 new jobs for these energies. The German companies on the export markets, we've attracted a lot of foreign investment in Germany so overall this strategy, phasing out an old energy form and going towards a new energy form, basically the solar age, that seems to be economically very promising for Germany.
NNAMDIWell, soon after the Fukushima crisis, Chancellor Merkel's party lost a key election in one state. That election was seen as a referendum on nuclear power and it seems to me that it represented a rise of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany. Why is there such anti-nuclear sentiment?
JUNGJOHANNWell, if you grew up in Germany like I did and I'm a child of the '70s, grew up in the '80s and I remember the time in the mid '80s of the nuclear reactor disaster in Chernobyl. People were running away from the rain. It was nuclear fallout rain coming from above. And so Germany and most of Western Europe experienced nuclear power also as a physical threat. And so that's part of the reason why there's such a strong history in Germany on the nuclear issue.
JUNGJOHANNAnd today, there's a majority, a strong majority of Germans favoring this phase out. In fact two thirds of Germans are arguing we should do this within five years, so even faster than the government is now planning to do.
NNAMDIRichard Lester, what role does history play in Japan's decision? Was Fukushima the last straw for a nation that has known the gravity of nuclear war?
LESTERWell, I think the Japanese are also going to be reassessing their position just as the Germans are doing. If I may, though, I'd like to just make one additional comment about the situation in Germany before turning to Japan.
LESTERAnd that is that it's perhaps less of a switch in policy than one might think. In a sense, the Germans have been there before. The chancellor said recently, of course, that she wanted to abandon or phase out nuclear energy by 2022, but in fact, the Germans stopped building nuclear plants in the 1980s. And for most of the last 15 years, Germany has had in effect a similar policy to phase out nuclear power as the one that was recently announced.
LESTERThe change actually took place not recently, but nine months ago when the new coalition government led by the chancellor announced that, in fact, it was going to extend the life of the German nuclear plants. That was a significant change and it was a change that was made at that time because of very strong doubts that the Germans would be able to comply with their obligations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and at the same time phase out the nuclear plants.
NNAMDIBut the extension, it's my understanding, was unpopular with the public?
LESTERIndeed. And so when the Fukushima accident took place within a couple of days, the chancellor was already announcing limits on nuclear power, which I think were strengthened in the most recent announcement. It was clearly an unpopular decision when she took it back in September. But it was made partly in response to a warning that came from the German Central Bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank, that if the phase-out of nuclear plants did take place, the country was in real danger of missing its carbon dioxide emission reduction targets by a wide margin, suffering blackouts, increased electricity prices and greatly increasing its dependence on gas imports from Russia.
LESTERThat was the motivation for the change back last September and, of course, we know what the motivation was for the additional change that we've just had.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about nuclear power and the decision to end nuclear power in Germany and to phase it out in several other countries. We're talking with Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Arne Jungjohann is director for the Environment and Global Dialogue Program at The Heinrich Boll Foundation. He's a former senior advisor for the Green Party in the German Bundestag. And also in studio with us is Phil Sharp. He's president of Resources for the Future.
NNAMDIResources for the Future is a non-profit organization that has been studying this issue. Phil Sharp is a former member of Congress who represented Indiana from 1975 to 1995. And I'm looking for a better description of Resources for the Future which I thought I just had in front of me, but I'll get back. It's also a non-partisan organization, isn't it, Phil Sharp?
NNAMDIFrom before Fukushima, we were hearing about a nuclear renaissance. Was a revival of nuclear power really going on and does this disaster effectively end that Phil Sharp?
SHARPWell I think it's an overstatement to say there was a renaissance beforehand. Certainly the people most excited about that were using that kind of language. I think many of us did say there was clearly a revival opportunity here in the United States meaning that we would actually add to the nuclear fleet by building new nuclear power plants. It's very important to recognize that nuclear power as a source of electricity has actually increased in this country without increasing the number of power plants because after many years of complicated managerial problems of running a number of the plants finally in many utilities they found ways to run these much more efficiently and it's believed more safely.
SHARPAnd so that we were getting 90 to 95 percent what they call capacity as opposed to even as low as 60 or 65 percent that some power plants had been getting. But to get to your question, yes, there was a movement forward. Now it's not clear yet what the impact of Fukushima is going to be. I think anybody would reasonably conclude it's complicated it. But it's very important to recognize that several things were already happening that have slowed the new power plant construction projects in this country.
SHARPOne was with the recession of 2008. We have seen a sharp drop-off in the growth pattern of electric use in this country. So it would mean there's not the imperative for how rapidly in certain parts of the country you need additional power. The other was that what was being discovered within the construction industry or the nuclear vendors' industry was that the cost of each of these new power plants was generally coming out to be, predicted to be higher than what had been thought of four or five years ago.
SHARPBut the third and perhaps the most complicating factor is -- and which remains a high uncertainty throughout our energy system is this new supply of natural gas. We've know there was gas in the rocks called shale gas, but we assumed, the industry, government, academia assumed, it was too expensive, too difficult to get. It was not available to us. Now the conventional wisdom is it's a huge supply, it's available to us.
SHARPWe have lots of environmental issues to work out, by the way, on it, but that -- if that's coming in at the reasonable prices that people are predicting, then it's simply -- economically, it makes it harder for a utility to make the decision for nuclear over a natural gas plant.
NNAMDIPhil Sharp is president of Resources for the Future, which is a non-profit and non-partisan organization that conducts independent research on environmental, energy, natural resources and environmental health issues. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the decisions by Germany, Japan and others to scale their nuclear power programs back? Should the U.S. follow suit? 800-433-8850 have you had second thoughts about nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster?
NNAMDIYou can also go to our website kojoshow.org Join the conversation there, send us a tweet at kojoshow or email to email@example.com. Richard Lester, from a scientific and technical point of view what kind of considerations need to be made when making a decision like one of these countries have?
LESTERWell, there are many considerations and I think at the top of the list -- perhaps not here in the U.S. today, but certainly in the somewhat longer run, at the top of the list has to be the concerns associated with climate change and the carbon emissions that are primarily driving that concern. But in addition, there are concerns or issues having to do with energy security, the ability to secure supplies of energy coming from overseas.
LESTERThere are considerations of cost, energy costs, an important factor in ensuring the competiveness of industries and that residential energy bills are under control. There are considerations of employment, jobs associated with new energy industries as well as traditional energy industries. So all of these factors have to be considered and actually relatively few of them are directly science and technology related. There are certainly underlying science and technology involved in all of them. But these considerations are economic, social, environmental, political, international security and those are the issues. That's what makes energy policy such a tough problem.
NNAMDIWe're going to get to the economic issues in a second, but we've got to take a short break. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. We will be continuing our conversation on ending nuclear power in Germany and Japan. You can also go to our website, join the conversation at kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBack to our conversation about ending nuclear power in Germany and in Japan. We're talking with Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
NNAMDIArne Jungjohann is director for the Environment on Global Dialogue Program of The Heinrich Boll Foundation. He's former senior advisor for the Green Party in the German Bundestag. And Phil Sharp is president of Researchers For The Future. He's also a former member of Congress, who represented Indiana from 1975 to 1995.
NNAMDIPhil Sharp, from a policy perspective, what kinds of questions will Angela Merkel need to answer as she moves forward with her ambitious plan to shut down Germany's 17 nuclear reactors by 2022?
SHARPWell, of course, obviously the biggest things are what other goals are you trying to accomplish? And they've set out a goal, they're trying to get 40 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions or greenhouse gas emissions by over their 1995 levels by 2020 I believe is what they're arguing is that goal.
SHARPAnd I think as several things have already been raised here is, that's one the questions, can you achieve those goals? Obviously two, and what I don't know and I'm sure a lot of study's been done on this because again, going back to, this is not brand-new since Fukushima for Germany. They've been having the debate, they've been having the argument, they've been doing analysis from different points of view about this for a number of years.
SHARPBut is -- to what degree will they tolerate politically any increased costs that are likely to come over time when this will all work out. The question is, in a short period of time, how disruptive is this? What is the responsibility of taxpayers there? Here in America that would certainly be a question versus what do you pay on your electricity bill.
SHARPSo there are multiple things to work out. I have no doubt that from a sheer point of view of delivering electricity they can do this. They're interconnected with the European grid, they have other options. But whether that makes sense economically and emissions wise policy, that remains to be proven it seems to me.
NNAMDIArne Jungjohann, what kind of cost-benefit analysis has been going on in Germany as you pear back your nuclear power program? Are Germans willing to stomach the higher costs that it will take to make this transition to renewables?
JUNGJOHANNWell, out of the 17 nuclear power plants we have, immediately after Fukushima, eight of them were shut down. The lights are still on, the trains are still going, the factories are humming. We don't have a shortage. We have enough energy supply at this moment and the announcement to shut down nine more plants of these within 10 years is quite realistic and is actually a framework that incentivizes new players coming in the market.
JUNGJOHANNIf you look at the German policy framework overall, as Phil has just mentioned it, it's a very comprehensive energy and climate strategy with medium and long-term goals to reduce your two emissions to increase the target for renewable energies to be more efficient, to reduce energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020.
JUNGJOHANNWe have a carbon prize in place. So you have very robust signals for the market, towards the low-carbon economy and we realize that a lot of investors are lining up for this and I think if you're in the field of developing new energy storage technologies, new renewables, new efficiency technologies, Germany is a market where you want to be. They have the framework that is incentivizing these kinds of technologies.
JUNGJOHANNNow, coming to your question of cost, what we will see in Germany is very likely a moderate increase of costs. That will happen no matter which new energies we will go for. That is very likely. And currently, Germans roughly pay per month per household something between six or seven years to finance the growth of renewable energies.
JUNGJOHANNAnd, you know, that sums up to, you know, maybe a German bratwurst and a beer. People are happy to pay that. It seems modest and they see the economic benefits of renewable energies on the other side.
NNAMDII need to get to the telephones, but before I do, Richard Lester, do you think Americans and our politicians have the will to make short-term sacrifices for greener energy in the long-term future?
LESTERWell, I think we've made some steps in that direction. I think that they've faulted in recent years as concerns about the economy have really overwhelmed almost every other issue on the national agenda. But I think it's also important to recognize that these are changes, these are transitions that really do take a long time.
LESTERWe talk about the solar age in Germany, for example, and the Germans have, of course, introduced very aggressive subsidies to encourage the development of the solar power industry and the deployment of solar technology. Since 2000 there have been extremely generous fee and tariffs and subsidies for solar electricity.
LESTERBut it's worth pointing out that even today, more than a decade after those solar incentives -- very aggressive solar incentives were introduced, Germany is still obtaining less than 1 percent of its electricity from solar (unintelligible) sources.
SHARPI think it's two percent in the meantime.
LESTERWell, that -- it may have increased in the last year or so, but as of 2009, it was 0.6 percent. So these things do take a lot of time and the -- I think we all wish the Germans well with their approach here and one thing that I think does need to be emphasized is the very effective policies that the Germans have introduced.
LESTERWith respect to energy efficiency, we're on a per capita basis. The German economy is twice as efficient as ours here in the U.S. so I think we wish the Germans well as they move in this direction, but I think we have to be realistic in recognizing how long these changes take and how costly they are. And when solar is responsible for, you know, less than one percent of electricity, the rate payers who are actually paying for these very generous subsidies, the other rate payers don't really notice it.
LESTERBut when solar becomes five percent, 10 percent and if it is still costly, we hope that the costs will come down but perhaps not as rapidly as the optimists expect, then those costs will start to be felt by the rate payers who are, at least in the German case, primarily responsible for meeting them.
LESTERSo, you know, this is a costly business. it's a time-consuming business and if it's going to work there has to be a national commitment to it, which here in the United States -- to go back to your question, Kojo -- I don't think we have seen yet.
NNAMDINot that level of commitment. Here is Jeff in Waldorf, Maryland. Jeff, you're on the air, go ahead please.
JEFFHi, Kojo. Nuclear waste is obviously the 800-pound gorilla in this conversation. It's unconscionable for the U.S. or any nation to build more nuclear plants when the waste is piling up at all these plants and by the way, it's extremely (unintelligible) .
JEFFSo let me ask your guests, how about redirecting billions of high-tech DOD weapons contract dollars toward technological solutions for things like safe transport, maybe even deep-sea bed or long-term learner deposit of these nuclear wastes and phasing in more high-tech wind solar technologies?
SHARPWell, I'm on the President's Commission on Nuclear Waste Policy and I'm not a technical person, but I'm there as one of the policy -- people who have been exposed to the policy battles over this. Let me quickly say, first of all, for a long time, we have been investing.
SHARPOne could always argue it should be more dollars into this. And in addition to that, two decisions that were made back in the 1980's that actually still hold in policy because much of this policy has major problems with it. But one was, where we made the decision that those of us getting any benefit out of nuclear power, meaning I'm the purchaser of electricity and there's probably some nuclear as a part of my portfolio, we're going to pay a fee that goes into a fund that builds up to help pay for this in the end.
SHARPSo we're not just putting the waste cost off on some future generation in that regard. Plus, every nuclear power plant has to have its own special fund for how it will decommission itself. That's a big plus in policy. That's not good enough.
SHARPThe other part is that the federal government said in return for making sure the money was there to pay for it, it would take responsibility for disposing of it and the federal government's had great difficulty politically getting us to the finish line for this.
SHARPI do think it's important. Again, I don't mean to be a Pollyanna about this at all, but because it is a serious problem that we have not yet fully resolved, much of it is political not technical. We have -- we do have the only deep-geologic waste site in the world in operation.
SHARPIt's not for the highest level that means the most toxic kind of waste that you either get out of the production of weapons or you get out of the nuclear power plant. But it's the next highest level, kind of thing's called transuranic, but no need to get into that. But it is operational, has been for 10 years and we've been putting waste underground.
SHARPAnd by the way, the local community is strongly supportive. Not every human being there who have direct experience with this. Where we've run into trouble is we know in Nevada where -- I was personally involved in the decision -- in Congress we limited the choices of where we would try to characterize a site for deep-geologic and we did it in Nevada in Yucca Mountain and that has run into some serious political difficulties.
SHARPThere are some technical questions raised. Richard would be far better on the scientific side of these questions of deep-sea bed and lunar kind of things. there's always been a question of the lunar thing being a, well you got to make sure you get it off the ground here and you may remember initially we had great trouble getting our rockets off the ground. They were blowing up on us in this country.
SHARPNow, hopefully we're beyond that but that's not a risk I'm sure everybody's willing to take. The other is in terms of the deep -- the sea bed thing, depends on whether you really get it down below the seabed or whether you're just dumping it in the ocean and there were studies done about this kind of stuff decades ago actually, in the United States and those have been pretty much pushed aside other than something called deep-bore hole, which you would shove it down a hole very deeply in the ground. But Richard's far more scientifically knowledgeable about this and developed -- worked with these issues.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Richard, go ahead please.
LESTERWell, I think a couple of points. The two options that the caller mentioned I think Phil commented on the fact that they are perhaps not particularly attractive, at least at this point. but there is another point that needs to be made, which is -- and this really relates to the caller's issue.
LESTERThat effectively for the last 25 years the technology for nuclear waste disposal has been frozen. The Congress, Phil commented on this, made the decision back in 1987 that we were going to look only at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. We weren't going to look anywhere else. We weren't going to look at other geologies. We weren't going to look at other kinds of technologies.
LESTERAnd so for 25 years, we've really been, in a sense, stuck in a groove on nuclear waste. There are important advances that have taken place outside the nuclear waste field that surely could be brought to bear on this problem. I do think that the point that was made before by Phil, that this is primarily a policy problem and even a political problem rather than a technological issue is correct.
LESTERBut that said, there are advances, for example, in the area of deep drilling where it's now almost routine for the folks in the oil and gas industry to drill several miles below the Earth's surface. And that opens up the possibility of disposing of the high-level nuclear waste, not 300 meters below ground, which is what would've happened at Yucca Mountain but rather three kilometers or four or five kilometers below ground.
LESTERIn other words, miles below ground in deep-bore holes, which would offer considerably better prospects for isolation of the long-term rate, long-lived nucleotides than could be predicated, let's say in a facility like Yucca Mountain. So I think there are -- I'm sorry, go ahead.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned the political issues in addition to the scientific and technological issues here. And Jeff, thank you very much for your call. But the United Nations just released a landmark report that said that renewable energy could account for almost 80 percent of the world's energy supply within 40 years but only if governments pursue the policies needed to promote green power.
NNAMDIAt this point, starting with Arne, is availability of these resources the real issue? Or is it the will, the political will to implement them?
JUNGJOHANNI think it's the latter that you mentioned, the political will. We have very good technologies available today at relative, modest costs and you have to remember, a country like Germany has very limited natural resources. We are about as sunny as the state of Alaska. That gives you a sense what is possible for the United States.
JUNGJOHANNI mean, this country by the way, has tremendous resources in terms of biomass in New England and in the Southeast, the winds in the Great Plains and Texas and the sunshine of California and Arizona. I mean, you know, if the Germans had those resources we would even accelerate the whole process.
JUNGJOHANNSo I don't think it's a technology matter on the renewable energies. But it's a question of setting the right framework and allowing yourself to transition from an energy system that is heavily depending on fossil fuels, on nuclear -- on very centralized big capital intensive energies and transition, you know, in a gradual way that doesn't harm the economy.
JUNGJOHANNYou transition to a system that is more de-centralized, it's more flexible. It is smarter and it is cleaner. And I think that potential is available out there and it's the question how we raise the political will and how we change the interests of the status quo remains the dominant voice in the political discussion.
NNAMDIPhil Sharp, when we say 80 percent of the world's energy supply within 40 years could be renewable energy, for comparisons sake, could you give us a breakdown of where the U.S. currently gets its power?
SHARPWell, I sometimes forget these numbers but my sense is that, for example, if we look in the electric sector, which is of course that and transportation are the two largest users of power in this country. If we can divide the economy that way there's more to it than that.
SHARPBut in the electric sector about 50 -- used to be 55 percent comes from coal burning. About 15 percent from natural gas, about 20 percent from nuclear and then depending on how you can count renewables, if you count in our hydro, which we don't tend to add much hydro in this country, only by new efficiencies at some of the dams, you get well under 10 percent in terms of these things.
SHARPBut wind has been one of the fastest growing, but it's on a very small base in this country and I do think it is both political will and economics. And one of the practical problems that we have here is how we make decisions in this country. In Germany, I'm sure it's not easy to make political decisions and they have landers or state governments as well as we do and these are always complicating features. It always looks from afar like it's easy easier to make a decision somewhere else.
SHARPBut we do have, because of both the size of our economy, the size of our population and the fact -- and the distribution of power between Washington and state governments, a complicated way to do this, it's rare that Washington is able to say, we shall do "X." Right now we're having a massive political dispute over whether we like Washington at all. Maybe we should just get rid of it. There certainly is a new desire to dump all the tea in the bay and not just in Boston Bay but out in the Atlantic Ocean.
SHARPI'm being facetious, but there is a real and honest question of how much you're willing to let the government pull the levers of the economy and we have an enormous difference of opinion in this country, which says -- this goes back to a question you said before, can Germany get there? Can Japan? Can we get there?
SHARPA real question is, can you sustain policy -- by the way can you also change policy when you realize it's not working very well which is the other part of that. And in our political system, at least in recent years, we've demonstrated it's hard to do. The Germans may be more successful, although what their nuclear decision represents right here was how they started out on one path, they changed it with Merkel. Now, she's fallen back. It may be that she wasn't with the population as she made those decisions. But even there, that alter -- that shifting of decisions is one of the practical problems we face in getting to a new transition.
NNAMDIGot a few callers on the line that I'd like to get to, but first, I have to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will be getting to your call. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think that nuclear power is safe? What do you think of the decisions by Germany, Japan and others to scale their nuclear power programs back? Should the U.S. follow suit? 800-433-8850, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing ending nuclear power in Germany and Japan and what the U.S. needs to do. We're talking with Phil Sharp, president of Resources for the Future. Phil Sharp is a former member of Congress. He represented Indiana from 1975 to 1995. Also in studio with us is Arne Jungjohann, director for the Environment and Global Dialogue Program of the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
NNAMDIHe's a former senior advisor for the Green Party in the German Bundestag. And Richard Lester is head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joins us from studios in Cambridge, Mass. And here is Aaron in Fairfax, Va. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONHey Kojo, thanks for taking my call.
AARONI was calling because I think one of the biggest -- well, for one thing, I don't think we should back away from nuclear, because what people don't realize, and I don't think we have the discussion enough, is that coal is really a disaster every day. And we tend to focus on these one-time disasters because they are -- they stick in the psyche a little bit longer.
AARONBut I think the administration's inability to make a decision of storage of waste even though we have been storing is different places, has scared the American public more than the idea of actually having nuclear power, because our government hasn't even been able to make a decision. And just one number before I finish and let you guys talk, is a couple years ago the EPA did a study and 25 percent of fish pulled out of rivers in the United States came back with unacceptably high levels of mercury poisoning.
AARONAnd I just think that that number would scare people far worse than one nuclear disaster in Japan no matter how bad it may have been. And anyway, that's my comment.
NNAMDIRichard Lester, talk a little bit about nuclear safety and some of the technology that apparently exists and/or is in the pipeline to try to make nuclear power a safer energy source.
LESTERWell, I think there are two ways to think about this. One are the advances that can be made to the existing workhorse light water reactors that account for something like 90 percent of the nuclear electricity that's generated around the world. And there are advances that have been made, there are more that will be made, that are designed to improve the safety performance of these reactors.
LESTERThe second category of advances are more radical, and they generally involve different kinds of designs, different kinds of fuel, different kinds of cooling systems for the reactors, and in the longer run, it is possible that we will see the introduction of reactor technologies, reactor designs somewhere around the world, that offer to a greater degree than the current generation of reactors the feature that people refer to as passive safety.
LESTERWhich is to say, the behavior of the reactors, and in particular, the behavior of the reactors in an emergency situation, is controlled not by the interventions of operators or engineered safety systems that have to work effectively, pumps, valves,, those sorts of things, but rather, would rely on features of the design that would not require such intervention, passive features if you like.
LESTERThese are reactors that are also known to some as walk-away safe reactors, reactors that would shut themselves down without the intervention of operators.
JUNGJOHANNYeah, Kojo. When you're talking in international community about nuclear safety after Fukushima, it is no matter if I talk to my French colleagues, they say we have the highest standard in nuclear safety. If I talk to the Russians, they say, we have the strongest regulation on nuclear safety, the Czech do that, and probably the Americans do that as well. What we are lacking is our international confident robust standards for safety of nuclear power.
JUNGJOHANNI don't see that currently. I see that as a -- it's a depth that the nuclear industry and the organizations they will have to provide that. When we look at the United States for example, there is the Fukushima plant, those four reactors that were in serious trouble and still are, they are reactors from General Electric. They're called Mark 1 reactors. And those reactors, out of those -- the same design, same type, you have more than 20 in the United States if I'm not misinformed.
JUNGJOHANNThey have been built in the '70s, and they were seen as rather cheap also not very -- they didn't have very high safety standards, and they were not allowed to build afterwards anymore. However, they are still running today, and I don't see -- if those operating plants are still running, why don't they have the higher standards as probably new nuclear power plants do have?
NNAMDIPhil Sharp, we got this email from Steve in Manassas, which you can add to your response. He says, "Please talk about the French nuclear program. I understand they satisfy 80 percent of their energy needs from nuclear. Have they ever had a nuclear accident? If not, how come?"
SHARPWell, I don't know what their record is on nuclear accidents. They certainly haven't had anything like Chernobyl or in Japan, but I think they've had a number of incidences they've had to deal with. I just don't know how severe they are. Arne may have the knowledge on this. Nobody is without having had some accidents. The question is, is what are the consequences of it and what have they done about that?
SHARPAnd it's certainly, you know, some people think France has more reactors than we do. They don't, because they're just smaller. They have something like 50 or 54 or something like that, 57 maybe it is. And we have 104 reactors. It's just a smaller percentage of our power here. Let me say something, I think I can help it express. This technology is difficult, risky, and has to be managed effectively and well. There's no getting around that. I don't care what you do. But there are big differences in what you technically do.
SHARPThere are big differences in the way you manage, and very significantly, as Arne was just (word?) , there are big ways in which you have oversight of the management by government, by private sector entities like we have (word?) in the United States. We cannot assume any of this operates perfectly, but our record is on the whole pretty darn good. But the good thing that can come out of Fukushima is that in the United States, we're clearly undergoing some serious review of technology so it examined which plants are doing what.
SHARPSecond of all, management, and everybody is being reminded of the severe responsibility and the consequences, and thirdly, we have multiple ways to oversee this. But you have to constantly -- I think one of the most important principles that we have in place in the United States, we just have to live by it, is an open -- as many times as we can have an open process where critics can come to bear at the nuclear regulatory commission, at various other levels, to make known their concerns is the most likely security for this technology over time.
SHARPI do think it is very important to understand this question of well, should we just shut down those 23. To me, I'm not personally ready to judge that, that's something I expect the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to examine. But one thing you want to be very careful about. In the United States, the way we have built plans and regulate them is, over time, individual plants, collectives of plants, all plants have had to upgrade their technologies. So none of them are exactly like they were when they were built.
SHARPFor example, one of the big issues in Japan is the fact that clearly they needed to get power back going to get the pumps running to put the water in the cooling -- both in the reactor itself, but also in the spent fuel pools. And they didn't get that going fast enough. There were other problems, but that was a serious problem. In the United States I don't know that we've conquered this. We're relooking at it, but after 9/11, we went through a major regulatory process and a major upgrade throughout our system in which that was taken as a very serious issue.
SHARPIt's again on the table, and it will be again considered, and I suspect new requirements will come into play on how much longer a period of time you've got to be able to provide instantaneous power and water supply for cooling.
NNAMDIRichard Lester, here is Tom in St. Leonard, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMHi. I'm a 35-year nuclear worker, so obviously I think we can operate it safely. Mine is just a comment. Any time I hear an elected or political official downplay additional costs to the equivalent of a bratwurst and a beer, I'm always nervous about that. That's just a general comment.
TOMBut, I guess, more importantly, I'm wondering if the speakers could talk to decentralized electrical systems, and hence, you know, kind of get away from the need for the big centralized power plants, both from an economic and a security standpoint if we look at our system. I think fuel cells have been talked about and even the community walk-away reactor, a small reactor that would provide, you know, either a small city or a large community, something of that nature.
NNAMDIRichard Lester, I will defer my own expertise on this to you.
LESTERWell, a couple of comments. I think we are -- there is a real trend in the direction -- thanks to these extraordinary events in information technology, there's a trend in the direction of being able to give consumers and users of electricity more authority, more ability to control how, when and when they use their power. And this is in a sense, the promise that underlies a lot of the discussion about the smart grid.
LESTERCoupled with that will be increasing deployment of localized solar and wind, but not without continued deployment and continued development of large central station base load electricity capability. You made a point earlier, Kojo, that someone had projected that within 50 years or 40 years we could have 80 percent renewables. I'm afraid we don't know how to do that yet. We don't know in particular how to manage very large amounts of intermittent power that would be associated with having, you know, large amount of solar and wind.
LESTERIn order to achieve that, we will need to do something that we don't yet know how to do, which is large scale or grid scale storage economically of electricity. We don't know how to do that at this point, and it's going to take a while. It's a big -- one of the big -- it's almost the holy grail if you like of research and development in electricity systems. But until we know how to do that, we're not going to be able to get close to those very high levels of deployment of renewables that the U.N. suggested.
LESTERIt would be charitable to refer to that as an aspirational goal. I think it might be more accurate to refer to it as fantasy.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, but Arne, I wanted to get your response to the international energy agency warning on Friday that Germany's moratorium on nuclear power will add 25 million tons a year to the country's carbon dioxide emissions. How do you account for this in calculating your yearly emissions?
JUNGJOHANNYeah. It's difficult to follow that calculation. On the one hand, we have this long-term climate strategy that we make the effort to not emit more -- I mean, we will reduce our emissions by 40 percent by 2020. And we have a carbon market in place. We have a cap. So basically if we fill the gap with coal or with gas fired power plant, we will have to reduce it some other space and I think that we will do that.
JUNGJOHANNJust one comment on Richard, I couldn't agree more that if we go for a renewable energy economy, that it's based on 80 or maybe even 90 or 100 percent renewable energies. We do not have all the answers today, but I don't think that is the point. We need to take on the challenge to go towards that transition, and we have areas in Germany or in Northern Germany in Denmark where at some points during the day we had 80 percent, 100 percent wind power in the grid, and they are able to handle that, and I think we can learn some lessons from that.
NNAMDIPhil Sharp, is it possible that Germany, Japan, and others could end up buying electricity from countries with far lower safety standards than they now have?
SHARPWell, that's certainly a possibility, Not so much for Japan because they're not integrated with any other grid. They have actually two separate grids in their own country, but in Germany they certainly have at the outset the opportunity to buy power from that nuclear power if there's any much surplus left in France. I don't think I would put this up as a big negative. I think it puts it up as this is one more thing that provides for a higher efficiency throughout Europe, and more opportunity for in case you get it wrong, you can go a different direction.
SHARPSo I'm reluctant to pronounce on what Germany is doing or not doing. I think what it tells us all is we have a big charge ahead of us. We need to keep reasonable consistent and persistent government policies if we expect to make significant changes. And personally, I didn't put this in as one of the things that's happened to nuclear like other things here is we still do not have in place here a solid carbon restraint policy that helps the private sector and the public sector know what next steps to take in terms of our energy supply.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're almost out of time. Arne, many of us who have been to Europe have seen the massive windmills dotting the European countryside. Is wind power one of Germany's primary sources of renewable energy?
JUNGJOHANNIt's right now the largest one. I think that's where the growth started. Over the meantime we developed biogas, that's the new kid on the block in Germany. Farmers producing gas out of biomass, and so the next big growth wave we will she is offshore wind and then repowering on onshore.
NNAMDIArne Jungjohann is director for the Environment and Global Dialogue Program of the Heinrich Boll Foundation. He's a former senior advisor for the Green Party in the German Bundestag. Arne, thank you so much for joining us.
JUNGJOHANNGlad to be here.
NNAMDIPhil Sharp is president of resources for the future. He's also a former member of Congress who represented Indiana from 1975 to 1995. Resources for the Future is a non-profit and non-partisan organization that conducts independent research on environmental energy natural resource and environmental health issues. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Richard Lester is heard of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Richard Lester, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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