Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Energiewende: energy transition 30 years after Chernobyl

Back in 2013, this blog looked at what was happening in the German energy sector:
Futures Forum: “Energiewende” – energy transformation... reducing dependence on fossil fuels and changing the role of the large traditional utilities.

Radio 4's Costing the Earth also looked at the phenomenon in 2013:
BBC Radio 4 - Costing the Earth, Berlin's Big Gamble

It's now thirty years since the accident at Chernobyl happened - but this was not the defining moment:

Nuclear written off before Chernobyl

26 Apr 2016 by Craig Morris

30 years ago, Chernobyl made the public fear radioactivity, thereby setting back the progress of nuclear technology – most articles you read today about the accident probably say something along those lines. For Craig Morris, that reading is a major accomplishment for the nuclear sector. The real story looks much worse.

On 26 April 1986, the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine began melting down. Soviet officials did not report the event. Two days later, radiation meters in Sweden went off, however. Nuclear plants across Europe had such detectors for their own safety. The cloud from Chernobyl reached Sweden first and quickly engulfed the rest of Western Europe in the next few days.

Countries throughout Europe warned citizens of the risks. Italy banned the sale of fresh milk for two weeks for children and pregnant women along with the sale of fresh leafy vegetables. Austria temporarily banned the sale of fresh vegetables from Eastern Europe. The German government advised the public to feed powdered milk to babies and wash fresh vegetables thoroughly. It also reassured the public that “no such accident can happen in Germany” because that particular reactor type did not exist in the country.

Readings of elevated radioactivity levels taken across the continent were made public – outside France and the Soviet Union. At the time, Pierre Pellerin headed the SCPRI, an organization within France’s Health Ministry in charge of radiation issues. He publicly claimed that “the radioactive cloud did not pass over France.”

The radioactive cloud from Chernobyl over Europe a few days after the accident. The text reads, “Part of the cloud clearly passed over French territory between April 30 and May 5.” The emphasis in the text can only be understood against the backdrop of the history of lies. Source: Le Monde

Nonetheless, the nuclear cloud that allegedly stopped at the French border also set off alarms at nuclear facilities in Cadarache, Marcoule and La Hague. Pellerin instructed his staff to keep this information secret for their entire professional life. He remained at the helm of that organization from 1959 until 1996 – for 37 years.

Italy phased out nuclear immediately after Chernobyl. The Germans took a more deliberated stance, creating an Environmental Ministry and negotiating phaseout detailsuntil 2002. Chernobyl led the Germans to talk about shutting down existing reactors; no new ones had been proposed for years. The accident led to greater governmental accountability in Germany.

In contrast, the French (as researcher Karena Kalmbach points out) associate Chernobyl with state intransparency. As one French scientist who had been in Munich when the accident occurred put it, “Everyone was talking about it [in Germany]. In France, nothing!” Only in Alsace, the area of France with a German-speaking population, did local officials react – perhaps because they had access to media reports in German – by banning the sale of spinach.

Why did French officials lie?

In 1986, the French were committed to constructing 170 reactors and going 100 percent nuclear for energy (France reached 40 percent). French president François Mitterrand won the elections on an anti-nuclear platform in 1981, promising a moratorium on new construction. In 1978, he had contributed to a publication critical of nuclear entitled “Towards a different nuclear policy” (in French).

In office, Mitterrand did not slow down nuclear, however; he ensured its success in France. The elections apparently aged Mitterrand quickly, for he announced after entering office that “ecology is an illness that afflicts the young.”

Mitterrand decided to use nuclear towards recreating the grande nation. Obviously no longer a superpower, France was quickly falling behind the UK as well in the 1980s. The British had just discovered gas and oil in the North Sea. And unlike Germany, the French lacked cheap coal. Nuclear seemed the only option left. Once a leader of the anti-nuclear movement, Mitterrand was uniquely positioned to break opposition to nuclear – just as Angela Merkel, once a leader of the anti-phaseout camp, broke opposition to it in 2011.

For new projects, nuclear got too expensive for bankers. By 1976, after years of subsidies, it was clear that nuclear power would not be competitive.

New nuclear plant construction peaked in 1976; cancellations, in 1978 – even before the accident at Three Mile Island (1979). France was the only Western European country to continue ordering a significant number of new reactors well into the 1980s (Germany started building its last one in 1982). Source: World Nuclear Report

Chernobyl allowed the nuclear sector to claim that uninformed hippies blocked nuclear by spreading irrational fear. The claim not only overlooks Wall Street, but also supposes a level of influence that the environmental movement never had. Had Chernobyl not happened, we would all know that Wall Street, not fearful environmentalists, abandoned nuclear – in ‘76, not ‘86.

Nuclear written off before Chernobyl – German Energy Transition

This piece is from the Energiewende project in Germany:

German Energy Transition

And this evening, Radio 4's Costing the Earth returned to Germany:

After Chernobyl

Listen in pop-out player
When radioactive particles from the Chernobyl disaster landed in Germany's Black Forest one woman decided to change her country's relationship with nuclear energy forever.
Julian Rush meets Ursula Sladek, founder of EWS Energy and prime mover in Germany's abandonment of nuclear energy.
Following the story from the first detection of radioactive particles, through the persistent impact of radioactive caesium in the soil to the rapid development of renewable energy after the Fukushima disaster of 2011, Julian tells the story of the transformation that's known in Germany as the Energiewende. With Ursula's son, Sebastian he discusses the future for renewable energy in a nuclear-free nation and considers the influence Germany may have on the rest of Europe.

Related Links

BBC Radio 4 - Costing the Earth, After Chernobyl

Meanwhile, in Germany:
Security alert at German nuclear power plant after computer systems are found to be infected with viruses  | Daily Mail Online
Viruses affect German nuclear power plant | East Devon Watch

And at Westminster:
Mps call for explanation of further delay on hinkley point nuclear power station | Daily Mail Online
EDF recalled to Parliamentary Committee to explain further delay to Hinkley C | East Devon Watch

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