Nuclear Energy Belongs in the Technology Museum

Hermann Scheer 1999

10 Mar 2007
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WCRE Update September, 14, 2004

Hermann Scheer, General Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE) declares:

World Energy Conference leads global economy into an atomic trap

At the World Energy Congress of the World Energy Council in Sydney representatives of the conventional energy system came together this month to discuss the future global energy situation under theme “Delivering Sustainability: Opportunities and Challenges for the Energy Industry.” This motto tells more about the actual intention than it probably meant to say. The opportunities and challenges of the conventional energy industry were in the centre of discussions and strategies, but not the challenges connected to the energy issue, which the global community and the global environment are facing. The general conclusion of the WEC Congress was that fossil energy will stay as dominant as in the past, Renewable Energy will play a minor role and nuclear energy needs to increase its share in the world energy supply.

The World Energy Council predicts that nuclear energy “will increase its role in delivering sustainable energy in both developed and developing countries in the years to come”.  However, it did not explain:

- that a sharp increase of nuclear energy based on today’s technology will be impossible due to the scarcity of uranium resources
- that new nuclear technologies like fusion reactors will never be available for at least the next 50 years if it could become available at all
- that nuclear energy has already consumed world-wide one trillion dollars of subsidies and will further rely on it
- that huge accidents in the past and possibly more in the future and the unsolved waste disposal contaminate our environment and threaten human life.

At the same time the WEC denounces the potential of Renewable Energy to provide an environmental friendly total world energy supply.

Since 80 years the World Energy Council (WEC) has been the leading advocate for the fossil and later nuclear energy industry. This year’s World Energy Conference in Sydney, Australia, has shown that the WEC has not changed its main focus on the promotion of fossil and nuclear energy. It is time that the issue of energy is discussed with a broader perspective.

The World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE) has shown at its Second World Renewable Energy Forum in Bonn in June 2004 that Renewable Energy is a realistic and necessary option for the future world energy supply in order to secure the world’s natural living base, to avoid the dependence on finite energy resources and to give underdeveloped countries a realistic chance for developing their economies. To realize the transition towards a global Renewable Energy society the World Council for Renewable Energy has adopted a World Renewable Energy Agenda that shows which shifts in strategic and political thinking need to be undertaken at regional, national and international level and it presents several proposals to achieve the goal of a world economy based on Renewable Energy (

In the following article, published in the most important German weekly paper “Die ZEIT”, Dr. Hermann Scheer reveals the non-option of nuclear energy and the realistic option of Renewable Energy for a sustainable world energy supply:

Nuclear Energy Belongs in the Technology Museum

by Hermann Scheer

Nuclear energy is still too expensive and too dangerous. Huge amounts of water are needed in a time of increasing water shortage. Uranium  supplies are limited. In Europe $1 trillion was spent on nuclear research while renewable energy fell by the wayside.

The end of the fossil energy age approaches. Its ecological limits draw near as material resources are exhausted. The advocates of nuclear energy see a new day dawning. Even some of its critics have joined the appeal for new nuclear power plants. 442 nuclear reactors are now operating worldwide with a total capacity of 300,000 Megawatts. Two and a half times this number will be added by 2030 and four times as many by 2050, says the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the bastion of the global nuclear community.

This pro-nuclear argument relies on twofold inhibition. Amid contrary facts, the economic advantages are praised. The risks are minimized or declared technically surmountable. At the same time, renewable energies are denounced as uneconomical, with their potential marginalized in order to underscore the indispensability of nuclear energy.

Trivializing the reactor catastrophe at Chernobyl is part of this strategy. In DIE ZEIT 31/2004, Gerd von Randow wrote that there have been only 40 deaths and 2000 registered cases of thyroid cancer. These figures have been provided by advocacy organizations. Independent studies, such as the report of the Munich Radiation Institute, have identified 70,000 casualties that include desperate suicides and the tens of thousands of long-term victims additionally projected.

Comparing these victims with the victims of coal mining and fossil energy emissions is an element of minimization. However, both the massive nuclear and fossil tragedies necessitate mobilizing renewable energy as the only prospect for lasting, emission-free, benign, and inexpensive supplies.

The deployment of nuclear energy is the result of gigantic mechanisms of subsidization and privilege. Before 1973, OECD governments spent over $150 billion (adjusted to current costs) in researching and developing nuclear energy, and practically nothing for renewable energy. Between 1974 and 1992, $168 billion was spent on nuclear energy and only $22 billion on renewables. The European Union's extravagant nuclear promotion efforts are not even included in this calculation. French statistics are still being kept secret. The total state support amounts to at least a trillion dollars, with mammoth assistance provided to market creation and to incentives for non-OECD countries, above all the former Soviet block.

Only $50 billion has been spent on renewable energy. Since 1957, the IAEA and Euratom have assisted governments in designing nuclear programs. By contrast, no international organizations exist today for renewable energy.

After the middle of the seventies, nuclear energy was largely burnt out, due more to enormously increased costs than to growing public resistance. The limitations on construction have become more severe. Uranium reserves estimated at a maximum 60 years refer to the number of plants currently in operation. With twice the number, the available time periods would inevitably be cut in half. The expansion calculated by the IAEA could not be realized without an immediate transition to the fast breeders for extending the uranium reserves!

The history of the breeder reactors is a history of fiascos. Like the Russian reactor, the British reactor achieved an operating capacity of 15 percent before its shutdown in 1992. The French Super Phoenix (1200 Megawatts) attained 7 percent and cost 10 billion euros. The much smaller Japanese breeder (300 Megawatts) cost 5 billion euros and experiences regular operating problems. Making these reactors fit for operation, if that were to prove possible, would require incalculably greater add-on costs. This path of development would be prohibitive without continued or increased public expenditures. The thousand-year nuclear waste question remains an unresolved problem with unforeseeable permanent costs.

Four additional reasons speak against the future viability of nuclear power:

- Their enormous water requirements for steam processes and cooling conflicts with intensified water emergencies due to climate change and the water needs of the growing world population.
- The excess heat of nuclear power plants is poorly suited for combined heat and power generation because of the high financial burdens of district heating systems appropriate to central nuclear power blocks.
- The danger of nuclear terrorism, not only by missile attacks on reactors, continues to grow with the intensification of “asymmetrical conflicts”.
- Full-load operation of capital-intensive nuclear reactors that is indispensable for their profitability can only be guaranteed if governments again deliberalize the electricity markets and obstruct alternatives. The nuclear economy remains a (concealed) state economy.

All this would have to be accepted given the finite nature of fossil fuel resources if the possible option of renewable energy did not exist with an energy supply potential for our planet that is 15,000 times as great as the annual consumption of nuclear and fossil energy. Scenarios depicting a full supply capability with available technologies have been compiled repeatedly by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the USA (1978), the International Institute for Applied System Analysis for Europe (1981) and the Enquete Commission of the German Bundestag (2002). While none of these analyses has ever been seriously refuted, all are ignored by conventional experts.

An electrical generation capacity of 16,000 Megawatts has evolved in Germany over the last twelve years in consequence of the renewable energy law. New facilities with 3000 Megawatts were realized in 2003 alone. If this initial rate were reproduced over the next 50 years, a total capacity of 166,000 Megawatts would result, equivalent to conventional capacities of 55,000 Megawatts. Nevertheless it is a very widespread fallacy to think in isolated substitution steps and ignore increasing efficiency potentials. Renewable Energy has unimagined advantages. Short energy chains replace long energy chains from the mines to the final consumer with losses of energy at every step of conversion and transformation. A relatively few highly centralized power plants will be superseded by many decentralized facilities. The need for wide-area infrastructure development declines dramatically.

This path will be blazed by new energy storage technologies soon to be introduced. Such technologies will remove the alleged permanent barriers of irregular wind and solar radiation patterns using electrostatic storage (super condensers), electro-mechanics (flywheels, compressed air), electrodynamics (supraconducting magnets) or thermal storage with the assistance of metal hydrides. Energetically self-sufficient residential subdivisions and businesses supplied continuously by photovoltaic current or wind power alone will no longer be utopian. Hybrid systems with alternating complementary power plants (like wind power and biomass generators) are other variations. The elimination of ongoing fuel costs (except for bio-energy) and the power transmission expenses that make up the greatest part of the present electricity price would constitute a milestone development. The entire energy system including current modes of Renewable Energy employment would thereby be revolutionized.

Fossil fuel and nuclear costs will inevitably rise while Renewable Energy becomes continuously cheaper due to series production and technological optimization. In the last ten years, wind power costs have fallen by 50 percent and photovoltaics around 30 percent. Today’s higher costs are the cost savings of tomorrow.

Renewable Energy is also the answer to imminent crude oil and natural gas shortages affecting fuel and heating needs. Meanwhile, it is the official consensus at DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen and Ford that biosynthetic fuels or bio-ethanol, bio-diesel and bio-gas can be introduced more cheaply and quickly than hydrogen produced from nuclear power, for which a costly new infrastructure would be necessary. The available potential could satisfy the fuel needs of the world as declared at the world biomass conference in Rome in May 2004. Energy-efficient solar construction would supply complete houses with heating and cooling energy. In Germany, there are already 3000 houses that do not require external energy sources. The Reichstag in Berlin is supplied with 85 percent Renewable Energy.

The time has come to overcome structural-conservative blindness and faint-hearted technological pessimism toward Renewable Energy. Renewables must be ambitiously explored and promoted in politics, science and technology as nuclear power was once supported. The combined technological and economic optimization of Renewable Energy will be easier to realize than for nuclear power, while avoiding its incalculable risks. The future age of nuclear/fossil energy should – the sooner, the better – be relegated to technological museums.

The SPD delegate Hermann Scheer, winner of the Alternative Nobel prize, is honorary president of EUROSOLAR. Before his election to parliament, the SPD politician was a systems analyst at the German nuclear research center in Karlsruhe.

(This article originally appeared in DIE ZEIT, 32/2004 and has been translated from German.)

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