Discover more from Learning by Proxy with Vivek Srinivasan
Welcome back to the Nuclear age?
Nuclear energy was supposed to provide the world energy security, until they determined that it was not safe. Now, they seem to be left with no other choice but to turn back to it.
When the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American politicians were scarcely aware of the destructive potential of the bombs. After the event, they tried their best to bury the truth.
It was thanks to the heroic effort on the part of news reporters that the gravity of the true devastation got reported. There was a need to put a positive spin and the ‘Nuclear Age’ came to life.
The source of unlimited, clean and abundant energy that would power the world.
During the development of the Nuclear Bomb, it was assumed that there would be very little fissile matter (nuclear fuel) available on Earth and America could hoard all of it and deter every other country from having it. They were proven wrong.
The first nuclear power plant that supplied energy to the grid, the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, went live in Russia in 1954. The first full-scale Nuclear Plant went live in Calder Hall in the United Kingdom a year later. A further year later America got its first Nuclear power plant. By this time all of the Western European nations were working on setting up their own nuclear power plants. This included Germany which was guilty of the holocaust!
Germany was okay, but Iran which has committed nothing remotely close to the holocaust cannot harness nuclear power. Hypocrisy is too gentle a word.
While the number of nuclear power plants grew rapidly between 1960 and 1990, most were located in North America and Europe until 1980. This was primarily because access to the technology was blocked by the west. By the 1990s there was a spurt in Asia.
Source: World Nuclear News
In the intervening years, there were two major disasters - The Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. Both made the West quite sceptical of expanding their Nuclear power capacity. In addition to this, the fall of the USSR in 1991 also opened the doors to greater globalisation and therefore access to many more sources of oil and gas. With that the growth of Nuclear power plateaued.
Price of Oil since 1940
Source: Macro Trends
As the oil prices reached historic lows in the 1990s, the interest in nuclear power also reached historic lows.
Of all the sources of power, renewables included, Nuclear still remains the cleanest way to produce power across the world. While the US has the largest number of Nuclear power plants, it still remains a very small percentage of the total energy produced in the country.
All of the Nuclear disasters that had taken place were in the pre-internet world, until Fukushima. That turned out to be the final nail in the Nuclear coffin.
Merkel had a pretty easy time in her first few years as chancellor. Her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, had cracked the hardest problem left behind by German unification: persistently high unemployment. He drove through tough reforms to streamline Germany’s labor-market rules and social-welfare benefits. The reforms were not immediately popular. Schröder lost the chancellorship in the election of 2005. But as the Schröder reforms went into effect, Germans went back to work. The unemployment rate dropped from more than 11 percent in 2005 to less than 6 percent in 2011, despite the shock of the global financial crisis.
Merkel coasted on Schröder’s work through those early years, with approval ratings in the 70s. But then her luck ran out. The 2008–09 financial crisis touched Germany comparatively lightly, but it hit Germany’s European trading partners hard. In 2010 and 2011, the countries of Southern Europe plunged into debt crises that forced a tough choice on Germany: rescue them, or risk seeing the euro currency zone dissolve. Under that pressure, Merkel’s popularity sagged. Her disapproval numbers reached their peak of 43 percent in mid-2010. This was the political context at the time of Fukushima. And you can see why it forced a deep rethink on a profoundly risk-averse, formerly pro-nuclear chancellor.
Germany has long been home to an active, mobilized movement against nuclear energy, much more so than other nuclear-using democracies. You can spend a lively evening with German friends discussing the sources of this movement’s strength. Whatever the origin, however, the antinuclear movement offered a considerable political resource to a politician willing to use it. Many politicians had pondered this opportunity in the past, including Merkel’s immediate predecessors. Merkel grasped it.
Source: The Atlantic
Germany became excessively dependent on Natural Gas from Russia and lobbied hard to have Natural Gas classified as “clean energy”. Not coincidentally, it was in 2011 that Nord Stream 1, the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany was commissioned. The free access to cheap and easy gas from Russia drove many Northern European economies toward Natural Gas.
This is a lesson Americans should consider too. The state of California, once a nuclear leader, has decommissioned three of its four nuclear plants, and is planning to close its last in the middle of this decade. Those plants have fallen victim to the same post-Fukushima anxiety that ended Germany’s nuclear era. Their closures portend equally grave consequences for California’s postcarbon future. The still-operating Diablo Canyon plant alone produces about 9 percent of California’s electricity. If Diablo Canyon goes offline in 2024 or 2025, filling that gap will almost certainly require burning more gas. Gas already provides 37 percent of California’s electricity; solar and wind together provide only about 24 percent. In the near term, less nuclear means more gas.
Source: The Atlantic
Everything was fine till the insistence on NATO membership for Ukraine led to the war. The Europeans got into bed with the Americans and decided to use every restriction in the financial and economic system. It continues to amaze me that they thought Russia could not do the same. With new markets having been found in Asia, Russia decided to cut off the gas supply to Europe in the midst of a deadly heatwave.
E.U. energy ministers are set to meet Tuesday to weigh a 15 percent reduction in gas use, specifically because of fears that the Kremlin could create artificial shortages threatening heat and power generation over the winter. As if to confirm such worries, Gazprom, the Russian company, on Monday said it would cut by half the flow through its pipeline to Germany to just 20 percent of capacity — less than a week after resuming limited flows following a maintenance shutdown.
New divisions have emerged on the E.U. proposal to cut gas use, as countries like Greece and Spain that do not rely heavily on Russian gas have chafed at the idea of asking businesses and people to conserve to help Germany, their wealthier northern partner. And European officials are racing to come up with alternative supplies from the Middle East, the United States and elsewhere.
Source: New York Times
It is increasingly looking like Germany would be the biggest loser as a result of the Ukrainian war. The loss of economic output that the country will suffer as a result of the shortage of power will hurt it.
The West has been hit by some of the worst effects of climate change this year. Their lakes and rivers are running dry. They have witnessed unprecedented forest fires. They do not have the choice of classifying Coal as “green” any more. The stand-off with Russia has left very few options on the table.
It is putting the Nuclear option back on the table.
In brief, here’s what’s happening:
The Netherlands plans to build a new nuclear plant, the first since 1973.
The UK has also decided to build a new nuclear power plant.
Poland is building a new one, too.
The Czech Republic is building a new nuclear reactor.
France is planning to build and export new nuclear plants.
Russia and China are backing nuclear power in Africa.
A variety of countries without nuclear plants are starting their first reactor projects.
Japan is restarting idled nuclear power plants.
Germany is considering extending the life of its remaining nuclear plants.
Belgium is delaying the closure of nuclear power plants.
The EU voted to formally recognize nuclear energy as “green”.
The US announced $6 billion to keep nuclear plants open.
California is rethinking the planned closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.
Last year, I had written a piece on Nuclear Fusion. There is a lot of investment that is finding its way into this. Fusion is considered the holy grail of energy. Almost no waste products and an incredibly safe way to produce energy that is incredibly green. Only, it needs a lot of energy to get started. Investment continues to pour in.
In the meantime, Fission continues to be a known devil.
The world might yet again be pushed back into the Nuclear Age and it might not be such a bad thing.