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It’s time to see nuclear power in a different light

It’s a carbon-free source of electricity that is always on and defunds fossil fuel tyrants like Vladimir Putin. It’s expensive — but we probably can’t afford to do without it.

Epidemiologists credit nuclear power with saving far more lives — from reduced emissions — than it has ever cost.TTstudio - stock.adobe.com

On a cold and blustery day last December, the old guard of Germany’s anti-nuke movement gathered in front of the gate of the Brokdorf nuclear reactor. They broke out the pumpkin soup and coffee and sang songs beneath a yellow banner reading “Shut down nuclear power plants.” They had been holding such a vigil on the sixth day of every month for the last 36 years. But this, the 425th, would be the last. At the end of the year, Germany shuttered Brokdorf and two other reactors. By the end of this year, the world’s fourth-largest economy will deactivate the last three, increasing its reliance on the fossil fuels that cause climate change and becoming, by far, the largest energy consumer in the world without a single nuclear plant on its territory.

Victory? For the country’s Green Party, which holds 15 percent of the seats in the Bundestag, yes. But it’s also a win for Vladimir Putin and his brutal invasion of Ukraine. Because while individual Germans have reacted to the war with profound sympathy and alarm, and though the German government recently promised to provide more than $1 billion to Ukraine in military aid, that figure is dwarfed by the $1.5 billion Germany pays Russia every week for oil, natural gas, and coal. That’s nearly $12 billion since the invasion began, on Feb. 24. Russian military expenditures average roughly $60 billion per year. If you follow the money — and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly has — you reach an inescapable conclusion: Germany is financing the most brutal European war of aggression since the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.

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Demonstrators hurled rocks toward police water cannons behind the security fence surrounding the nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, Germany, June 7, 1986.Heribert Proepper/Associated Press

This puts German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in an uncomfortable position, and he has few good options. A blanket embargo on Russian energy imports would throw the German economy into catastrophic shock, which makes the country’s nuclear policy all the more baffling. Even before the invasion, Scholz’s government was under pressure from foreign observers to halt the deactivation of the remaining three nuclear power plants and bring Brokdorf and the other recently shuttered reactors back online, to both reduce emissions and shrink the country’s dependence on Russian energy. According to data from the World Nuclear Association, if all six plants were running at 90 percent capacity, they would reduce Germany’s gas consumption by 14 percent. That might not halt Putin, but it would shrink his war chest by well over $1 billion.

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Germany’s current dependence on Russian fossil fuel imports has deep roots. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, in 2011, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel scrapped her pro-nuclear stance and agreed to steep reductions in nuclear output, a concession to powerful political forces unique to Germany. “There’s nothing anywhere else in the world like Germany’s Green Party,” notes Peter Sparding, a policy analyst at the German Marshall Fund. A rabid antipathy to all things nuclear, he says, is embedded in the Greens’ DNA.

Such deep aversion to atom-splitting was made possible, in part, through a growing reliance on Russian energy imports. Had Germany simply maintained the 17 plants that were operational before 2011, the country could be importing 60 percent less gas from Russia.

Still, with war crimes splashed across international news sites, surely Germany would revisit its plans to shutter the remaining plants. Belgium, Sparding points out, reversed its deactivations. Emmanuel Macron has pledged to increase France’s nuclear energy production, with plans for six new reactors. But when Germany’s ministries of the economy and the environment conducted a review of the nuclear decommissioning plans in March, they affirmed the original decision to close the plants.

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As the review makes clear, there would be considerable costs associated with bringing all six plants back online. But then, the costs of creating other alternatives to Russian gas imports, like building expensive terminals for liquified natural gas, will also be very expensive, says Randy Bell, senior director for global energy security at the Atlantic Council, an American think tank. Bell says that Germany’s economy minister Robert Habeck has privately admitted that Germany should consider keeping the plants open. “But then it didn’t happen,” Bell says. “There’s not a win there, politically.”

It’s unsurprising that the ministers who reviewed Germany’s nuclear plan are both members of the Green Party. The German Green party has its origins in the antiwar and antinuclear movements of the 1970s, when all things nuclear became a left-wing shibboleth on both sides of the Atlantic. Such orthodoxies are hard to change — even when a political position that once stood for peace and the environment now underwrites war crimes and threatens the future of the planet.

The irony of this intransigence is familiar to Armond Cohen, executive director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force and a longtime environmentalist. “I started my career fighting nuclear plants in the 1980s,” he says. Then climate change became a more urgent problem, and nuclear power got safer and cleaner. Some of his fellow travelers saw the light; others stuck to their guns, arguing that “nuclear was associated with big corporations and the military-industrial complex. They were complicit.” Today, however, “there’s a growing division among environmentalists,” he says. Many groups are committed to the party line. Others recognize that “we’ll never reach zero emissions without nuclear.”

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On March 16, 1979, “The China Syndrome” opened in movie theaters across the country. The plot follows a young TV reporter, played by Jane Fonda, who inadvertently witnesses the near-meltdown of a nuclear core and later notes that the accident nearly rendered “an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable.” Twelve days later, as if by some cosmic cue, a reactor at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pa., partially melted down. Panic ensued, with 100,000 people fleeing the immediate area and TV cameras broadcasting footage that might have been ripped directly from the movie. Public sentiment swung solidly against nuclear power.

Unfortunately, outrage travels faster than science, so it was years before we learned that the maximum radiation to which residents were exposed was equivalent to that of a chest X-ray. In fact, the first Brokdorf protests date to the weeks following the accident at Three Mile Island.

Once projected to replace coal and other fossil fuels, nuclear energy flatlined over ensuing decades. The building of hundreds of plants around the world was canceled. Of the 129 U.S. plants approved for construction at the time of Three Mile Island, fewer than half would be built. The accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima only further cemented opinion against the technology.

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Yet the case against nuclear energy has always been long on emotional appeal and short on logic. Nuclear produces no greenhouse gas emissions (other than what’s required to build a plant). The accidents at Three Mile, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have largely been attributed to design flaws, poor training, or, in Fukushima’s case, a failure to plan for a freak tsunami.

The truth is that in the past four decades the industry has become startlingly safe and clean, and the deaths and injuries from these high-profile accidents were a tiny fraction of the number of deaths caused by the fossil fuel industry every year. More than eight million people died from conditions attributable to fossil fuel emissions in 2018, and thousands more died in accidents related to mining and drilling for coal, gas, and oil. By contrast, there were no deaths directly attributable to either the Three Mile Island or Fukushima disasters. In fact, epidemiologists credit nuclear power with saving far more lives — from reduced emissions — than it has ever cost. A 2019 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, an American nonprofit, estimated that Germany’s nuclear drawdown costs the country 1,100 lives and $12 billion every year.

As for the valid concerns over nuclear waste, it’s worth noting that all the spent fuel ever produced by the United States would fit on a single football field. And even that won’t necessarily stick around forever: New nuclear-power technologies theoretically will be able to generate energy from that waste.

Opponents often point to the cost associated with nuclear energy production without noting that much of the expense stems from the regulatory hurdles installed by these same critics — often with the financial support of the fossil fuel industry. In 2017, for example, the American Petroleum Institute quietly funded a “grassroots” campaign against a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania that was providing 25 percent of that state’s zero-emissions energy. Cost comparisons also aren’t what they may seem; nuclear doesn’t benefit from the tax incentives and subsidies afforded to renewables. Were Congress to pass a carbon tax, as some environmentalists have long advocated, the cost-effectiveness of nuclear energy would dramatically improve.

Most important, as the Clean Air Task Force’s Cohen points out, nuclear looks even more crucial in a future of broadly adopted renewable energy. Wind and solar power are both highly variable — so making widespread use of them requires that we also have a clean source of baseline energy for nights and cloudy, windless days. Nuclear production does not require vast real estate. What’s more, new technologies, such as molten salt reactors, are theoretically meltdown-proof, eliminating a risk, however statistically improbable, that long plagued any mention of nuclear energy. And small modular reactors can be built quickly and operated more cheaply than the reactors of yore.

The nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, Germany. The country is drawing the final curtain on its decades-long use of atomic power.HERIBERT PROEPPER/Associated Press

There is little chance that Germany will reverse its decision to sunder its relationship with nuclear energy, despite the measurable cost to the lives of both Ukrainian and German citizens. What may be a victory for the Greens is demonstrably not one for either the planet or its inhabitants. Rather, the abandonment of nuclear energy in Germany smacks of the kind of policymaking born of the vagaries of passion, not the certitudes of science. In the United States, where no Green Party holds environmental thinking hostage, we still have time to do better. In fact, we have no choice.

Jeff Howe is a journalism professor at Northeastern University, where he teaches science writing. He is currently at work on his third book.