Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 5/2019

Not perhaps “nuclear energy for future” after all?

The only actually economic and available option for solving the energy challenge (until the introduction of nuclear fusion around 2050) is nuclear fission, currently used by 31 countries worldwide, with in five more newcomers under construction and four more in concrete planning. The nuclear fuels uranium and thorium are available worldwide for many centuries and for practically nothing else usable, with use in advanced reactors even for many thousands of years.

The residues - the “nuclear waste” to be finally disposed of - are minimal and - in contrast to carbon - have been completely retained from the outset for safe disposal. The total volume of all high-level waste from over 50 years of nuclear energy use in Germany is no more than two sports halls. The myth of “one million years” biosphere closure is misleading, as each radioactive atom can decay only once, depending on the isotope either the activity is high and the half-life short or the activity low and the half-life long. Highly active long-radiating nuclear waste does not exist.

The radiotoxicity at least of reprocessing residues corresponds by natural decay to that of natural uranium ore after already about ten thousand years. At the same time, practically all the host rocks proposed so far also meet the long-term requirement simply because they are demonstrably much older (salt domes, for example, 250 million years old).

Nonetheless, Germany is the only country world-wide today to be making a real nu-clear exit. France, for example, has recently decided to extend its operation licenses by (initially) ten years, with little public notice.

The key country in terms of global CO2 emissions, China (over 22 % of global CO2 equivalent emissions, e.g. for the export of mass steel), now operates 48 nuclear power plant units (approx. 5 % of electricity), has 33 under construction and around 200 in planning by 2035.

Assuming an average cost advantage of nuclear energy of only 4 €ct/kWh compared to conventional power generation, the premature decommissioning of the 17 formerly existing German nuclear power plant units at about half of their technically possible operating life (at approx. 30 years) corresponds to an economic loss of around 200 billion euros, far more than the loss caused by the destruction of the six units of Fukushima in Japan in 2011 by the tsunami (clean-up, demolition and compensation payments).

Nevertheless, this “nuclear energy” option is no longer mentioned in any public discussion in Germany, although one should rather ask oneself whether this reaction was perhaps premature and unnecessary.

The cause of the accident in Fukushima was the deliberate ignoring of a known high probability of flooding of the site (estimated once every three hundred years). In contrast to e.g. German facilities, Fukushima was topographically and technically not protected against flooding. If the plant had only had watertight doors, the site would not even have been on the evening news on 11 March 2011. European nuclear power stations, on the other hand, are regularly designed to withstand floods, which only have to be assumed once every 10,000 years, and then not as sudden flooding, but with levels slowly rising above ground, making targeted countermeasures easy.

The legitimate and decisive question about Fukushima had to be self-evident: Are other damage scenarios conceivable that could lead to similarly inadmissible consequences?

This question could be answered in the negative for all European nuclear power plants after the subsequent “RSK Test” (Reactor Safety Commission) and the parallel “EU Stress Test” (in which even the Ukraine participated) carried out throughout Europe. In particular, the German sites excelled here with special additional safety reserves and a high level of equipment (for which almost no meaningful further retrofits could be identified).

As the World Health Organisation concluded, nobody in Fukushima has been harmed by radioactivity.

The probability of occurrence of major tsunamis on Japanese coasts of once in thirty to three hundred years (all 15 Japanese nuclear power plant sites are located on coasts) can be compared with the frequency of occurrence of hazardous accidental nuclear releases from European nuclear power plants reliably confirmed in extensive safety research programmes in the range of one to one million (reactor operating) years.

These circumstances were not taken into account in the German phase-out decision 2011. No nuclear technicians or risk analysts were represented in the “Ethics Commission”, which was appointed exclusively by the then Federal Government.

In view of today’s findings on the climate issue, the protests of the younger generation and true global responsibility, would it not be appropriate to rethink this decision in the meantime?