Germany to Reverse Course on Atomic Energy?

As a result of their dismal showing in the elections to the Bundestag on September 27, Germany’s left of center Social Democrats (SPD) have been replaced in the former “grand coalition” government with the more conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) by the market oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP). One salutary result has been an apparent reversal of course on the irrational but ideologically fashionable decision to shut down Germany’s nuclear generating capacity. According to Der Spiegel,

The Union (CDU) and FDP will accommodate the nuclear industry – but under stern conditions. The operational lifetime of German nuclear power plants can be extended on condition that high safety standards are met. According to a paper by the new coalition’s working group on the environment made available to Spiegel Online, “Nuclear energy will be necessary as a transitional and bridge technology until climate friendly and more economical alternative means of producing sufficient electricity are available capable of meeting baseload electric generation requirements. Therefore, the operational lifetime of German nuclear power plants will be extended to 32 years.

Solar Power and German Ideologues

Der Spiegel has provided us with another edifying example of the difference between sound public policy and ideological grandstanding. It turns out that the outgoing Social Democratic (SPD) “Minister of the Environment,” Sigmar Gabriel, has saddled the German people with a gift that will keep on giving in the form of a debt of at least 27 billion Euros. It comes in the form of a clause in Germany’s “Renewable Energy Law” that grants a subsidy of 43 Cents per kilowatt-hour to producers of solar power – five times higher than the cost of conventional power. But wait, it gets better; the subsidy will remain in effect for at least the next 20 years. And, by the way, that’s just for the facilities that were built between 2000 and 2008. Meanwhile, new facilities are being built hand over fist. About 2000 additional megawatts are expected to come on line in 2009, providing German consumers with another heaping helping of debt to the tune of 9 or 10 billion Euros. This remarkable example of ideological dilettantism has, at least, resulted in the creation of many new jobs – in China. Following a predictable pattern, German solar cell producers have been ramping down production at home and transferring it to Asia. Meanwhile, as Der Spiegel points out, the subsidies have had such “environmentally friendly” effects as

…keeping the world price of solar panels artificially high. The result: international producers are flooding the German market with solar modules – and very little is left for other countries, in spite of the fact that a solar facility in Africa could produce substantially more electricity than in rainy Germany.

All this comes at a time when the actual cost of solar modules has been in free fall. Spiegel cites an article in the German trade magazine “Photon,” according to which, “Solar power can now be produced much more cheaply than the high subsidies would lead one to believe.”

Judging by the quantitative results, we must assume that wind has been less afflicted by ideological meddling than solar in Germany. Wind facilities currently provide six percent of her power, as opposed to solar’s contribution of less than one percent.

China Ramps up Nuclear Power

According to FuturePundit (hattip Instapundit)

Bloomberg reports on an interview with the President of Japan Steel Works that China will build more than double previous estimates. 132 units will take China way past the US (at 104 units and probably smaller average size) in total nuclear reactor capacity.

The country may build about 22 reactors in the five years ending 2010 and 132 units thereafter, compared with a company estimate last year for a total 60 reactors, President Ikuo Sato said in an interview. Japan Steel Works has the only plant that makes the central part of a large-size nuclear reactor’s containment vessel in a single piece, reducing radiation risk.

More nukes means a slower growth rate in coal electric power plant construction. The total amount of CO2 emissions from Chinese plants will continue to rise. But it would rise as fast and as far as previously projected. That high build rate should bring down costs and make China the low cost leader in nuclear power plant construction.

Low cost leader indeed! Perhaps we should help our Chinese friends out by sending over Michael Grunwald to explain to them that nuclear power is “really, really expensive.”


Nuclear Power Update

Speaking of things nuclear, Rod Adams has the latest on nuclear power over at Atomic Insights. As usual, Rod has the anti-nukers in his crosshairs:

I wonder how NIRS, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Nuclear Energy Information Service, and Missourians for Safe Energy (all of these groups were also represented in the press release and the conference call) like carrying water for the coal and natural gas industries, which will be the major economic beneficiaries from any laws that continue to keep nuclear energy projects out of consideration for the on-demand, affordable electricity supplies that developed societies both need and desire.

It’s literally true that the professionally pious anti-nuclear crowd is carrying water for the coal and natural gas industries. Of course, they like to pretend to themselves that they are really promoting some “environmentally benign” alternative. Back in the days before anyone was worried about global warming, I recall seeing a bumper sticker that said, “Split logs, not atoms.” Nowadays their tastes run more to covering thousands of square miles of the environmentally fragile desert southwest with solar collectors held in place by millions of tons of steel and concrete, all apparently to be manufactured using some “environmentally friendly” process. Whatever. The current reality is that decisions not to build nuclear mean that coal and other fossil fired generating capacity will be left on line instead. In general, they also mean that new fossil fired capacity will be built as well. So much the worse for the environment. Global warming is only significant to our current crop of “environmental activists” as a vehicle for striking noble poses. The pose is always what matters to them, not the reality. If the reality happens to be that part of the solution to global warming is nuclear power, alas, they will turn a blind eye as Florida sinks slowly beneath the waves. You see, nuclear power is unfashionable. One cannot pose as a heroic savior of mankind and support nuclear power at the same time.

Germany, for example, is the epicenter of anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe. Always behind the curve when it comes to the latest intellectual fads, the hapless German “progressives” still dutifully trudge off to anti-nuclear demonstrations long after they have become “so yesterday” in the rest of Europe. Heaven forefend that they should listen to cooler heads like Wulf Bernotat, who point out that taking nuclear plants off line will require Germany to burn more coal. After all, Bernotat is the head of an evil corporation. Meanwhile, back in the real world, as Germany’s amusingly misnomered “Greens” preside over the shutting down of her nuclear plants, she continues to burn coal full blast. To top it off, 26 new coal-fired plants are planned. Thus the reality of the “fight against global warming” in the world of the poseurs.


Alternative Energy Myths and the Nuclear Orphan

Another interesting article turned up in Foreign Policy recently entitled “Seven Myths about Alternative Energy,” by legacy media environmental journalist Michael Grunwald. His collection of “myths” provides a revealing look at the psychology of the “green” would be saviors of the planet. Let’s run down his list.

Myth number one is, “We need to do everything possible to promote alternative energy.” Grunwald prefers a different emphasis: “…though the world should do everything sensible to promote alternative energy, there’s no point trying to do everything possible.” The information content of this bit of wordsmithing as it stands is epsilon (a very small number). From the left to the right of the ideological spectrum, I have never encountered anyone who proposes that we should do everything possible to promote alternative energy, including things that don’t make sense. Reading on, one notes that, in a blurb that is supposed to be about alternative energy, Grunwald studiously avoids any mention of such credible candidates as wind, solar, and geothermal. Rather, he directs his ire at alternatives that aren’t quite ready for prime time: “Hydrogen cars, cold fusion, and other speculative technologies might sound cool, but they could divert valuable resources from ideas that are already achievable and cost-effective.” This statement is logically absurd.

Consider fusion for example. The amount of resources being “diverted” worldwide to the energy applications of fusion, including both its hot and cold flavors, is utterly insignificant in comparison to the amount we spend on energy production, the total amount we spend on research, or any other number one could reasonably compare it to. I am no fusion true believer. It is a high risk technology, and one that will almost certainly not figure in the world’s energy equation before Grunwald’s target date of 2050. If, on the other hand, we can overcome the daunting technological hurdles Mother Nature has put in our path and find a way to use it, fusion has the potential to meet the world’s energy needs indefinitely while releasing no greenhouse gases and with an insignificant radiological hazard compared to nuclear and coal. There are many interesting research efforts afoot to finesse the technological problems that beset such “traditional” approaches as magnetic and inertial confinement fusion. The amount of research dollars being devoted to these efforts is miniscule. They can all be characterized as high risk, but it is hardly implausible to suggest that, eventually, one of them will succeed. If so, the payoff will be enormous. The problem of greenhouse gas emissions might be solved once and for all, without the severe environmental impact of covering massive areas with wind farms and solar collectors. In a word, if we are truly worried about global warming, it would be utterly reckless and senseless to eliminate the tiny resources we currently devote to energy applications of fusion. As we shall see, Grunwald’s reasons for rejecting such alternatives, not to mention the seeming lack of interest in such immediately available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal have more to do with psychology than logic.

Moving on to myths 2 and 3, Grunwald turns his ire on biofuels, such as ethanol derived from corn. No surprise there, as he has often hammered the “clean energy” hype emanating from that sector in the past. He notes that such “renewable fuels” have been heavily promoted by governments around the world, including ours, but points out, “…so far in the real world, the cures — mostly ethanol derived from corn in the United States or biodiesel derived from palm oil, soybeans, and rapeseed in Europe — have been significantly worse than the disease.” So far, so good. I have yet to see a convincing argument in favor of biofuels that seriously addresses such problems as the facts that their production results in a net loss in energy, horrific environmental damage, and a reduction in the world’s food supply. The problem with myths 2 and 3 is that they are strawmen. I know of no credible authority outside of industry advocates who is seriously suggesting that biofuels are a plausible solution to global warming.

Grunwald’s myth 4 is, “Nuclear power is the cure for our addiction to coal.” This seems counterintuitive, since, according to the most reliable studies, the carbon footprint of nuclear plants is a small fraction of that of its fossil fuel alternatives. Among the reasons Grunwald cites for dismissing the nuclear alternative is the fact that it will be too slow coming on line to make a dent in carbon emissions in the near term. That’s quite true, but while one may certainly point to it as an unfortunate fact of life, it is certainly no reason to abandon nuclear altogether. If global warming is really the problem Grunwald claims it is, than surely late is better than never.

Be that as it may, Grunwald cites cost as the real show stopper for nuclear power. As he puts it,

Nuke plants are supposed to be expensive to build but cheap to operate. Unfortunately, they’re turning out to be really, really expensive to build; their cost estimates have quadrupled in less than a decade. Energy guru Amory Lovins has calculated that new nukes will cost nearly three times as much as wind — and that was before their construction costs exploded for a variety of reasons, including the global credit crunch, the atrophying of the nuclear labor force, and a supplier squeeze symbolized by a Japanese company’s worldwide monopoly on steel-forging for reactors.

At this point, the familiar anti-nuclear “green” narrative emerges from the mist, and Grunwald leaves logical argument in the dust. Amory Lovins is certainly someone worth listening to. He is also one of the legacy media’s beloved “mavericks,” and hardly someone whose cost estimates represent the final word on the subject. In fact, if one looks at the credible cost estimates of nuclear versus its alternatives, not just from sources connected with the industry, but, for example, from a study done in 2003 by an interdisciplinary group of MIT professors and updated in 2009, the suggestion that nuclear is “really, really expensive” compared to the alternatives may be dismissed as bunk. Grunwald might have had some credibility if he had taken the trouble to dispute these estimates with arguments more substantial than anecdotes about Japanese steel monopolies. As it is, it is clear that his rejection of nuclear has nothing to do with its intrinsic merits or lack thereof. Rather, it simply doesn’t fit in the “conservation and efficiency” narrative he shares with Lovins. Grunwald uses myths 5 through 7 to outline the narrative.

It turns out that myth 5, “There is no silver bullet to the energy crisis,” is only a pseudo-myth. As Grunwald himself admits, “Probably not.” Be that as it may, he clearly has a silver bullet in mind; efficiency. In his words,

But some bullets are a lot better than others; we ought to give them our best shot before we commit to evidently inferior bullets. And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most abundant of them all. It doesn’t induce deforestation or require elaborate security. It doesn’t depend on the weather. And it won’t take years to build or bring to market; it’s already universally available. It is called “efficiency.”

Conservation and energy efficiency are certainly laudable goals, and ones that should be pursued aggressively. However, Grunwald’s problem is that he sees them in typical journalistic black and white. They are the one true path to salvation, as opposed to the “inferior bullets.” This setting up of artificial barriers separating the plausible alternatives to solving our energy problems into a “good” approach standing in opposition to other “bad” approaches is more a reflection of human psychology than logic. For example, the hard fact is that rejection of nuclear power has and will continue to result in the building of more fossil-fired generation capacity. That is precisely what is going on in Germany, whose “Greens” have forced the foolhardy decision to shut down nuclear plants rather than refurbish them and keep them on line, resulting in the building of new coal plants even as we speak, and in defiance of these same “Greens” warm, fuzzy rhetoric about the virtues of alternative energy. Similarly, Grunwald’s blasé attitude towards alternatives such as wind, solar, and geothermal is more likely to encourage complacency than, for example, an aggressive approach to building the power transmission infrastructure we need to accommodate these new technologies. According to Grunwald,

Al Gore has a reasonably plausible plan for zero-emissions power by 2020; he envisions an ambitious 28 percent decrease in demand through efficiency, plus some ambitious increases in supply from wind, solar, and geothermal energy. But we don’t even have to reduce our fossil fuel use to zero to reach our 2020 targets. We just have to use less.

Al Gore may be right, but he may also be wrong. Regardless, it would be foolish of us to put all of our eggs in one basket. In particular, it would be very foolish to cut off the already miniscule support we are currently giving to high risk, high payoff technologies such as fusion. It is highly unlikely that global energy demand will go down as the world’s population continues to increase, or that the citizens of emerging economic powers such as India and China will continue to be satisfied with a third world lifestyle. Ignoring technologies that could plausibly solve the problem of global warming because Grunwald thinks they are dumb would be both illogical and, potentially, suicidal. His attitude is typical of the representatives of what H. L. Mencken used to call the “uplift” on the left. Though I suspect most of them don’t realize it themselves, they are far more interested in posing as saviors of mankind than in actually saving mankind. Hence, for example, the hand waving dismissal of nuclear technology. The Grunwalds of the world will continue to dismiss it, not because it is not a plausible piece of an overall solution to the problem of global warming, but because it is unfashionable. If one would strike a truly heroic pose, one cannot afford to be unfashionable.

An Effective Solution to Global Warming…

…and environmental degradation in general, for that matter. The U.S. and Europe could have done more than a hundred Kyoto treaties to fight global climate change by ending immigration, both legal and illegal. Like nuclear power, however, while effective, that would not have been politically correct. Remember, when it comes to the saviors of the environment, the pose is everything.

Russia does not enjoy the luxury of existing on an island, like Japan. As a result, she now faces the existential threat of massive immigration from Asia. Her future will depend on how she meets the challenge.

How do you like Pravda’s new look, by the way? It puts the National Enquirer in the shade. Life at the CIA’s Russia desk must be a lot more entertaining these days. I especially liked this article.

Soviet Ekranoplan
Soviet Ekranoplan

When the Wind Blows…

…the wind turbines will rock, or at least they did for a while in Washington State and Oregon (hattip Atomic Insights). Meanwhile, it seems Germany’s conversion to alternative energy sources seems to have run into a few snags. According to IEEE, they’re “readying a new generation of coal-fired power plants—including three proposed for Brunsbüttel,” to take up the slack as they shut down their nuclear generating capacity at the behest of the wildly misnomered “Greens.” As Rod at AI puts it, “Fortunately, the article does mention that all of the effort to attempt to build wind, solar and new fossil fuel stations could be avoided if Germany simply decided to keep its existing nuclear power plants on line with a program of continuing improvements.” Kinda tells you something about how serious the “Greens” really are about global warming, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, Chicago Boyz cite a report in “The Economist” about the lugubrious prospects for Britain’s energy future, passing on the rather dubious intelligence that, “Coal has a bad environmental rap and it is hard to imagine any new coal plants being built in any Western countries.” No doubt that will come as a shock to the folks who are planning to build 43 new coal-fired plants in the US in the next five years, especially since some of them are already under construction.

Apparently Poland’s leaders have seen the handwriting on the wall, and aren’t quite crazy enough to follow Germany’s example. Meanwhile, as Carl at Chicago Boyz points out, China is building new coal fired plants hand over fist. Somebody needs to send them Al Gore’s movie in a hurry before they completely bury us economically. Then again, so what if they do? Consciousness of our superior environmental piety will surely console us as we freeze in the cold.

Update: So it’s natural gas you want? (Hattip Instapundit)

Global Warming Histrionics and Nuclear Energy

The field of global warming has become a happy hunting ground for holier-than-thou poseurs and ideologues on both sides. This is evident from the tone of the debate. The two sides have congealed into ideological in-groups that demonize the opposition and reveal all the inaccessibility to logical argument typical of such groups. For the “antis” their opponents are “environmental wackos.” For the “pros,” their opponents are “deniers.” That’s unfortunate, because it’s probable that global warming is real, that it is dangerous, and that it would behoove us to take effective action to stop it. Some of the arguments on both sides may be found here and here.

There will certainly be “action,” in the form of political grandstanding, but effective action is another story. A big part of the problem is that the environmental scientists, the people who should be sounding the alarm, have lost their credibility. They have cried “wolf” too many times, as documented, for example, by Bjorn Lomborg in his “Skeptical Environmentalist.” When they responded to Lomborg’s book by collecting a gang of ideological shills posing as scientists into a kangaroo court that accused Lomborg of “scientific dishonesty,” they lost what credibility they had left. As a result, in terms of social influence, they are now limited to preaching to the choir, because no one else will listen to them.

The result has been the co-option of the debate by ideologues referred to above, accompanied by the usual stifling of intelligent debate. Anyone who disputes any aspect of the “absolute truth” of global warming automatically becomes a “denier,” or, in other words, the evil denizen of an out-group. “Winning” the argument has now become much more important than actually doing anything effective to solve the problem. This is demonstrated by the way in which, with a few noteworthy exceptions, the global warming zealots are studiously ignoring the option of nuclear power. A rapid transition to nuclear power production is the single most effective, and at the same time most environmentally benign action we could take to combat global warming. The fact that the ideologues are ignoring this part of the solution demonstrates that, in fact, for them the pose is everything, and the reality nothing. They really don’t mind a little global warming as long as it gives them one more chance to climb up on the moral high ground a strike heroic poses as the saviors of the planet.