Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 5/2015

Long-term energy strategies without ideology barriers

The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which led to the flooding and severe damaging of four nuclear units at the Fukushima Daiichi site on March 11, 2011 ignited once again, after the core meltdown accidents in Three Mile Island in 1979 and in Chernobyl in 1986, the discussion on how to prevent reactor accidents involving massive release of radioactive contamination across the reactor boundaries. Currently, there are more than 7,500 workers on the Fukushima site decontaminating the plant and its surroundings, preventing the contaminated cooling water from penetrating into the groundwater and devising a long-term dismantling and waste disposal strategy particularly for the 4 damaged nuclear reactor units.

In Germany the discussion on pros and cons of the peaceful use of nuclear power has been dragging along for the last 30 years together with an alienation of opponents from proponents within the society which prevented an open discussion on solutions acceptable for both sides. In particular, there is no obvious reason for why the demand for technically feasible developments to drastically improve the safety objectives of nuclear power plants remained relatively mute even after the Chernobyl reactor catastrophe in 1986.

After isolated enactment of the self-imposed energy transition (Energiewende), Germany finds itself in a dynamic and highly competitive European energy market facing the double challenge of having to significantly reduce CO2 emissions while phasing out the use of nuclear power by the year 2022. The phase-out not only includes a ban of new nuclear power plant deployment, but even forbids the development of enhanced nuclear power systems that may exhibit inherently safe operating characteristics. This may be understood as a restriction to freedom, which is in clear contrast to the global development of an open society that insists on its right to follow transparent decisions of their governments and demands technologically sound and economically viable solutions suitable for its needs.

Implementation of the energy transition requires the enhancement of energy efficiency both on the supply and the demand side. More fundamentally, the energy transitions may induce a completely different comprehension of the mutual interaction between utilities and end-users as the latter will have to consider energy conversion characteristics of intermittent renewable energy systems and act accordingly. This means that opposed to the current understanding that the utilities have to satisfy customers’ demands, the customers will have to shift their demand to times where renewable energy is made available by utilities. Solutions such as smart grids who guide customers accordingly are currently being developed but bring along further challenges such as unresolved privacy issues. This reveals the complexity of the side effects of the energy transition and shows that the future energy economy should not solely rely on short-term supply strategies which may be subject to current, but misleading trends or even political ideology. Rather, a sound future energy strategy should be based on long-term perspectives considering aspects such as technological development and maturity, regional synergies and total risk optimisation.

New, potentially disrupting developments and findings will be decisive for the direction of future industrial development, which is why freedom in research and development has to be preserved. Otherwise, important developments would be at risk to be forgone, substantially delayed, or simply implemented by other countries around the globe. At least as importantly, however, any researcher and research institution have to maintain their scientific integrity and draw conclusions only in the fields of research they are proficient in. Similarly, when publishing their research results, the authors have to ensure their reproducibility and integrity as well as their independence of any entity sponsoring the research work. Likewise, non-governmental organisations have to question their point of view and ensure it is based on honest, reliable research and knowledge rather than on short-lived lobbyists’ arguments. A non-ideological discourse on new technologies has to be embraced and stimulated by all participants. Additionally to technological aspects, societal points of view have to be taken into account as technological developments have be in line with societal needs taking into account societal reservations. Maintaining and improving quality of life necessitates technological development, which won’t be possible, if it is not strongly supported by society as a consequence of fears and miscommunication.

The nuclear power plants that were damaged following the Japanese earthquake are among the oldest ones operated in Japan. Analyses and discussions of the event have shown that the scenario is hardly applicable to other sites such as in Germany. Here, for nuclear power plants, safety measures and emergency procedures have been implemented that would prevent progress of such an accident and exclude massive release of radioactive contaminants even under severe conditions. Nonetheless, it has to be determined if enough information on earthquakes and tsunamis is now available to the Japanese operator TEPCO and responsible regulatory entities and whether all the necessary safety enhancements have been implemented at those Japanese nuclear sites which are due for restart in the upcoming years. The entire global nuclear industry is called to thoroughly look into the accident to draw conclusions on how to avoid such accidents of existing nuclear power plants in the future.

With regard to future nuclear power plants, concepts should be implemented which in the case of station-blackout events ensure complete removal of decay heat through self-acting principles without needing any active systems requiring electrical power. Such nuclear power plants are capable of stabilising themselves by natural heat transfer either through thermal radiation or convection thus avoiding overheating of the nuclear core at any normal or accidental operating point. The development of such concepts has to be reinforced as they will certainly be of importance both for the future electricity and the future industrial heat markets. As one of the global pioneers using this technology, Germany has gathered valuable experience in this field that would be readily available for the development of versatile future nuclear power plants that may supply industrial districts with relatively cheap low-carbon energy. However, whether or not Germany will be building new nuclear power plants by 2023 or will still be importing electricity from foreign nuclear power plants remains to be seen. In any case it is essential that Germany continues to participate in projects on the development of future nuclear power plants with superior safety characteristics as these would provide an important prerequisite for public acceptance of the technology.

A future sustainable energy economy will have to make use of all energy carriers available. Having already achieved deep international integration and high competitiveness, the currently most pressing common political goal is to significantly reduce CO2 emissions in the future. New technology and infrastructure will have to be implemented soon to achieve this goal. However, choices on which technologies to favour will have to be made carefully so that they won’t impede international competition and integration, but rather promote economic prosperity.

In Germany nuclear power plants will be operated up to 2022 strictly in accordance with the current state of the art in research. After the phase-out they will have to be dismantled, which requires highly qualified personnel both on site and at authorities and will last at least until 2045. Countries bordering on Germany, such as the Czech Republic, Poland, The Netherlands, and France, are still committed to nuclear energy and therefore build up, maintain or enhance their nuclear generation capacities. As Germany intents to accompany these activities in the European Union by providing technological insight and discussing regulatory standards, training and participation in international projects in nuclear-related fields have to be preserved and extended at public educational and research institutions based on strong political support. The Free State of Saxony and the Technische Universität Dresden are ready to responsibly support national efforts towards this goal.