_ Dresden, 15 July 2021.*
Electrification of the economy
Social progress has always been linked to a secure energy supply. It was only through the development of energy sources that people were able to implement their ideas and create wealth. Fossil raw materials formed the basis of the industrial revolution.
At the moment, the impression may be that progress would tend to lead to lower energy consumption – for example in traffic or when heating houses. But in the Western world there are already many new ideas that increase our hunger for energy.
For example, new materials for lightweight construction such as magnesium, aluminum and carbon are obtained with a high expenditure of energy. Electricity consumption in particular will increase sharply.
The move away from fossil fuels requires the electrification of transport, heating and industrial processes. Synthetic energy carriers based on hydrogen could replace crude oil.
The digital revolution, Industry 4.0 and increasing networking must be fed with electricity. The global Bitcoin technology alone causes electricity consumption similar to that in Switzerland.
Increasing water scarcity in the world has to be solved with seawater desalination and there are numerous peoples who want to achieve Western prosperity.
The German energy transition – a dead end
The German government has so far relied almost exclusively on volatile wind and solar energy for these challenges as part of the “energy transition” and is abolishing safely available power plants.
It is now becoming increasingly clear that this does not work out.
In its planning for a reduction in CO2 emissions of 80 percent compared to 1990, the federal government assumes future electricity consumption of less than 600 terawatt hours (TWh). That is at least 100 TWh less than most well-known research institutes forecast for 2030. E.g., the German Energy Agency even predicts an increase to 840 TWh by 2030.
Market research institutes and the Federal Court of Auditors are warning of a massive electricity gap in Germany in 2022, which, according to the researchers, can only be compensated for by electricity imports. The market research institute EUPD Research also predicts that Germany will only be able to cover 80 percent of its electricity needs even with imports in 2023. An extension of the service life of coal-fired power plants would be inevitable. Numerous other institutes and consulting companies, as well as various authorities, are forecasting a massive shortfall in electricity from 2022.
Renewable energies cannot provide the required energy.
The potential of hydropower is almost exhausted and energy from biomass is competing with food production. Wind and solar energy make us dependent on wind and weather as well as the time of year. Only 1 percent of the required, safely available power of currently around 80 gigawatts can currently be provided by wind and solar energy systems. The energy requirement is particularly high in winter when there is little solar radiation.
In the meantime, there is an increasing number of almost blackouts in Germany, most recently in January 2021.
The consequences of a power failure caused by unpredictable energy sources are catastrophic. A report published in 2011 by the Office for Technology Assessment in the German Bundestag states, among other things: “The impact analysis has shown that after just a few days in the affected area, the nationwide and needs-based supply of the population with essential goods and services could no longer be guaranteed. Public safety would be at risk, and the state could no longer meet the constitutionally anchored duty to protect the life and limb of its citizens.”
With the draft of the Taxable Consumption Equipment Act, the federal government has already given an outlook for future electricity rationing and entry into the shortage economy. This restriction is euphemistically called “Demand Side Management” today, i.e. the restriction of consumption depending on the electricity supply.
Even with rationing of consumption, an energy supply with fluctuating energy sources with such a low level of reliability is impossible.
There is no infrastructure for storing electricity on the scale required.
In addition, renewable energies are very low in energy in Germany with weak winds and moderately sunny regions. In order to generate a substantial amount of energy, wind and solar power plants have to be built on gigantic areas. These areas are not available in a densely populated country like Germany.
In the DENA scenario, 493 TWh per year would be provided by onshore wind turbines on at least 10,000 km2, plus 3,000 km2 of solar area. These would be 200 meter high wind turbines. Even today, with a designated wind park area of 3,000 km2 and smaller wind turbines, hardly a wind project can be implemented without resistance from local residents and environmentalists.
A large number of citizens’ initiatives are already directed against the destruction of landscapes with wind turbines and solar systems.
In addition, wind and solar energy are much more expensive than fossil or nuclear energy sources or hydropower. Although some wind farms can market electricity for a short time without subsidies, they always have to be covered by controllable power plants with almost the same capacity. They reap profits on the market without taking on system responsibility like the controllable power plants.
The solution – nuclear energy
Fortunately, there is an energy source that enables a supply without fossil raw materials and is cheap, safely available and environmentally friendly: nuclear energy.
The principle is impressively simple. High-energy, radioactive substances are taken from the earth, forced by a controlled reaction to give up part of their energy and then brought back into the earth. A large part of the energy could be used with modern technology so that only a small amount of short-lived radioactive material has to be stored.
France is an example of how well a nuclear power supply works. There, over 70 percent of the electricity is generated in nuclear power plants – at a low electricity price of 17.65 cents per kilowatt hour. In Germany, with its failed energy transition, electricity will soon be twice as expensive at 30.88 cents per kWh.
In Germany, around 30,000 kWh of energy in all forms is consumed per inhabitant and year. If this energy were only provided by nuclear power plants, every German citizen would only use 4 grams of fissile material (such as uranium 235) per year. However, a fresh fuel assembly contains only 4 percent fissile material, with 2 percent remaining after the burn-up. Without reprocessing, the spent fuel element must be disposed of with 94 percent usable uranium 238, 2 percent remaining uranium 235/36, 1 percent plutonium and 3 percent fission products. With reprocessing, only the 3 percent fission products are finally disposed of. Since the chemical reactions in the current reprocessing technology do not have a 100 percent turnover, some of the recyclable materials are also lost. The reprocessing reduces the highly radioactive nuclear waste by 93 percent and the reprocessing processes can still be further developed.
Nevertheless, this environmentally friendly technology was banned in Germany on the initiative of the Greens. According to them, future generations would rather be burdened with nuclear waste. The planned reprocessing plant in Wackersdorf was not put into operation.
But even this handful of nuclear waste could be avoided with modern technology. The long-lived radioactive waste (transuranium elements), like the hardly radiating uranium 238, can be converted into usable nuclear fuel by transmutation. This would require so-called breeder reactors and other technologies. In no case should nuclear waste be disposed of so that it would no longer be accessible if recycling technology was available. This would not only eliminate the possibility of waste disposal, but also waste a valuable raw material.
Unfortunately, nuclear energy has fallen into disrepute in Germany, but by no means in the rest of the world. With reference to a reactor (Chernobyl), which was already risky in terms of its construction, and a reactor that was operated without basic safety equipment and was installed in an area where stone pillars from the Middle Ages already indicate the risk of flooding (Fukushima), German politicians consider nuclear energy to present great risk.
Soviet nuclear power plants of the Chernobyl type were designed for easy production in the socialist shortage economy and for the production of weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons. They cannot be compared with German nuclear power plants, which are among the safest in the world.
Modern Generation IV power plants can be built in such a way that the risk of catastrophic accidents no longer exists due to the laws of physics. This concept is called inherent security.
Many other countries, including those in Germany’s immediate neighbourhood, are relying on nuclear energy.
Six nuclear power plants are currently under construction in Europe (excluding Russia and Ukraine) and a further 20 are being planned, including six in Poland and four in the Czech Republic.
Worldwide 53 are under construction and 326 are in planning.
Germany was once one of the leading nations in the civil use of nuclear energy. Companies like Siemens developed and built the most modern power plants. The nuclear research center in Dresden-Rossendorf delivered important research in the field of the recycling of nuclear waste through transmutation.
This knowledge is gradually being lost as long as Germany ignores nuclear energy.
Nuclear energy – Germany as the wrong-way driver
In 2010, 17 nuclear power plants with a capacity of 20.3 GW were in operation in Germany.
After the reactor accident in Fukushima, the federal government irresponsibly decided to shut them down by 2022. Not even the Japanese, who were directly affected, decided to take such a radical step and will increase their electricity generation from nuclear energy by 6 percent in 2021.
Even if the reactor accident caused old power plants to be checked and shut down worldwide, the number of reactors in operation has remained constant between 2010 and 2020. The installed capacity has even increased slightly.
In view of the current planning projects, it can be assumed that the number of nuclear power plants will double in a few decades. China, India and Russia in particular will use and develop this environmentally friendly and inexpensive technology.
China’s assumed electricity production of over 9,000 TWh in 2050, compared to around 600 TWh currently in Germany, shows how little Germany’s influence on global emissions is and will be in the future. Germany has already lost the competition China in many areas of technology. Nuclear energy shouldn’t be added on top of this.
In many countries, including those in the immediate vicinity of Germany, nuclear energy will be a key pillar of electricity production in the future.
The Polish government had already presented a draft for its national climate plan for 2040 in November 2018. This includes the construction of six new nuclear power plants. The Dutch government is also examining the construction of new nuclear power plants. In addition, the European countries Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria and France want to establish nuclear energy as part of “European decarbonisation ”. These countries are in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency, both of which advocate the use of nuclear energy.,
Modern nuclear power plants are safe
Nuclear power plants are divided into four generations.
Generation I were the first prototypes from the 1950s and 60s that are no longer in operation today.
Almost all nuclear power plants in the world belong to Generation II. This is the generation of power plants designed for commercial operation with a term of 40 years. Today we know that they can run for 60 years without any problems. In the USA, term extensions to 80 years are even being planned. The German nuclear power plants could still be operated for many years or decades without any problems.
There are significant qualitative differences in Generation II power plants. The power plants in Chernobyl with a reactor core made of graphite, which is flammable and generated “the cloud”, and the power plant in Fukushima without the so-called “containment” (a hermetic protective vessel) around the reactor are also part of the Generation II reactors.
However, German nuclear power plants are designed to be much safer. Every nuclear reactor needs a moderator who slows down the neutrons, since only slow neutrons maintain a chain reaction. Water is used for this in German reactors. If a core gets too hot, the water evaporates. This would also be the case in the event of a leak and without water the chain reaction would come to a standstill. Such self-regulating mechanisms make a modern reactor safe. This is also called passive safety, i.e. safety that is always given due to physical laws – regardless of human operating errors, attacks or natural disasters.
Uncontrolled chain reactions are not possible in German reactors. However, there is the problem of “decay heat”. After the end of the chain reaction, this arises from the breakdown of fission products and has to be cooled. For this purpose, nuclear power plants often have redundant cooling systems up to extinguishing ponds and connections for the fire brigade. In the extremely unlikely event that all safety devices fail at the same time, the reactor is located in a steel container several centimeters thick that can withstand an explosion inside.
Reactors under construction today usually belong to generation III or III +, the latter were developed after the Fukushima disaster. They are based on the same reactor concepts as Generation II, but are designed for complete passive safety without the need for human intervention. Some of them also have a ceramic collecting basin underneath the reactor core, so that even if the reactor melts, as in Fukushima, the melted reactor core cannot leave the nuclear power plant and get into the ground. The groundwater thus remains untouched. The containment is so strong that even a plane crash would not damage the reactor.
Due to the higher investment costs for these safety standards, Generation III + reactors are designed for a service life of 60 years with a potential of over 100 years.
The Franco-German joint development EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) is such a modern reactor, which, for example, will start operating in the Finnish Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in 2021. With EPR, the probability of damage is reduced to 60 damage events (not accidents) per 100 million years of operation – modern generation III + power plants even for three damage events per 100 million years of operation.
Generation III / III + has certainly proven itself for over 20 years and is replacing aging reactors in France, for example. Such types of power plants with the highest safety standards could currently be used for new power plants in Germany.
The development of nuclear power plants is only just beginning – inherent safety and new possibilities in the future
If mankind had stopped developing computers in the 1950s, when they were the size of houses, we would not be where we are today. However, we are still at this early stage in the development of nuclear energy. The type of reactor used in Germany, the pressurized water reactor, reached its technological peak with Generation III +, but not nuclear power plant technology itself. Generation III + is just a continuation of old concepts from the 1950s.
Generation IV reactors will be constructed completely differently. They can be inherently safe and enable completely new applications such as the production of hydrogen or closed raw material cycles, also with fuels other than uranium.
There are numerous other reactor concepts, some of which have already been tested and some of which do not yet exist as prototypes.
Particularly noteworthy is the inherent security. This means that the problem of dissipating the decay heat is also solved in that it is physically impossible for the nuclear fuel to leave the reactor vessel due to the design.
This can be done, for example, by using pebbles instead of fuel rods, which passively dissipate the heat through a large surface. Even in the event of an intentionally caused, large explosives explosion in the nuclear power plant, the fuel would be safely enclosed in ceramic balls, which in turn contain smaller ceramic balls.
Other concepts use liquid nuclear fuel as molten salt. If the temperature rises above a limit value, a safety fuse could be installed at the lowest point of the reactor, which would melt like a wax plug and empty the reactor contents into a safe vessel.
Nuclear power plants are cheap
Nuclear power plants are a very cheap source of electricity. Russian or Chinese nuclear power plants have investment costs in the range of 2,000 – 3,000 euros per kW and are therefore about as expensive as a modern coal-fired power plant. A generation III + nuclear power plant was built in China in 2018 for 4,000 euros per kW.
However, nuclear fuel is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly than large amounts of hard coal.
In Europe, the construction of nuclear power plants is currently more expensive. Not least, this has to do with the fact that opponents of nuclear power regularly demand new safety requirements. Some of these are superfluous or in many cases redundant and thus drive-up costs.
However, a security system that is as complicated as possible is the wrong way to go. A high level of safety at low cost is achieved by planning a power plant as simply as possible and with as few components as possible: What does not exist cannot break down. For example, the cooling can be done by a so-called “natural circulation”, whereby no pump is required. Modern reactor concepts with inherent safety can do without many safety precautions because there is no physical risk of an accident.
Furthermore, with new reactor concepts, operating temperatures are possible which enable the thermochemical splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen without using the extremely expensive and inefficient electrolysis technology. This would greatly reduce the cost of producing hydrogen.
The utilization of alternative fuels such as thorium and uranium 238 would further reduce the already low fuel costs of nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power is large and network load capable
In 2019, the nuclear power plants in Germany produced 75.01 terawatt hours of emission-free electricity, which is more than half as much as the more than 30,000 wind turbines (125.9 terawatt hours). On average, a nuclear power plant replaces more than 2,500 wind turbines, does not require any storage and is controllable.
Nuclear energy poses the fewest threats to health
Measured in terms of the number of (expected) deaths per terawatt hour (1,000,000,000 kilowatt hours), nuclear power comes off very well with relatively few casualties, even taking into account the most pessimistic long-term effects of the Chernobyl and Fukushima reactor accidents.,,
According to some studies, nuclear energy is actually the safest source of electricity. Deaths from solar energy occur, for example, from accidents when working on roofs, from electric shocks and during the mining of raw materials. As raw materials for silicon production for solar cells, silanes are highly toxic. Wind turbines also pose certain health risks due to work at great heights, shadows, infrasound, ice throwing and the extraction of raw materials. There have already been catastrophic accidents when using hydropower. In the Banqiao disaster, tens of thousands of people died in a flood.
Accidents like those of Chernobyl or Fukushima would not have happened in Germany because these systems would not have been approved in this country.
The radiation exposure from hard coal power plants, which spread isotopes bound in hard coal into the environment, is usually higher, even if it is negligibly low overall. A study by NASA found that nuclear power plants had prevented 1.84 million deaths from air pollution worldwide by 2010.
In fact, the Fukushima nuclear accident has resulted in one death from radiation. There are projections that assume a relationship between radiation dose and cancer rate and calculate a statistical increase of 130 cancer deaths (Ten Hoeve & Jacobson, 2012), but such calculations are very uncertain. A linear relationship between radiation dose and cancer rate is scientifically very controversial, as there are also areas on earth with high natural radiation exposure (such as the Black Forest and parts of Saxony) without an increased incidence of cancer. It can be assumed that low levels of radiation are harmless. The Chernobyl accident killed fewer than 50 people. A joint report by the WHO, the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency considers 4,000 deaths from cancer to be possible worldwide.
Reconditioning instead of final storage and waste of resources
The main problem in assessing nuclear energy is how to dispose of the nuclear waste. Due to the ban on the reprocessing of spent fuel elements, they currently have to be stored in decay basins or castor containers in order to bury them somewhere in Germany, according to the will of the federal government.
This has two disadvantages: Firstly, a spent fuel element still consists essentially of uranium plus some fission products, which can also be used. Throwing it away would simply be a waste. The reprocessing and use of the resulting plutonium would multiply the productivity of the fuel. Second, without reprocessing (using current methods), a much larger amount of highly radioactive waste must be stored. The main problem here is a plutonium isotope PU239 with a half-life of 24,100 years. Only after a storage period of one million years would this have disintegrated to such an extent that there is no longer any danger. However, it is precisely the plutonium that can be used well in current nuclear power plants.
The only reason for the reprocessing ban is concern that the plutonium from the old fuel assemblies could be used in nuclear weapons. To do this, the plutonium would have to be stolen from the reprocessing plant, which would be about as likely as the theft of nuclear weapons from militarily secured plants, i.e. virtually impossible.
Of course, if Germany were to export spent fuel rods to France or Russia, it would not be able to monitor the whereabouts of the material. However, this problem can easily be circumvented by building a separate reprocessing plant in Germany. Such a project was already started in Wackersdorf and but then stopped.
Plutonium, which is always a by-product, can be reused as fuel in commercial nuclear reactors alongside uranium. This “secondary production” can serve to ensure that the very weakly radioactive uranium 238, which is useless in the chain reaction, of which around 96 percent of a fuel element consists, can still be used. Through the conversion by bombardment with neutrons from the nuclear reaction (transmutation) this can be converted into plutonium 239 and used as such for energy. If this were to be done in full, the fuel yield would increase by 50 times. This concept is currently being pursued in Russia, where two commercial reactors are in operation that produce a surplus of plutonium, which is recovered after the fuel elements have been removed and used in normal nuclear reactors. This principle is called a breeder reactor.
Transmutation, i.e. the conversion of substances through irradiation with neutrons, is also the solution to the entire long-term waste problem. By chemically separating the long-lived decay products uranium, plutonium, americium, curium and neptunium, and converting them into nuclear fuel, long-term disposal can become superfluous. This process is already being used successfully in Russia, and corresponding power plants are being planned in France (ASTRID project) and elsewhere. All fission products with a half-life of thousands of years would be recycled and only relatively short-lived substances remained. These only need to be stored for a few hundred years.
A repository that is concreted over and forgotten or at least can no longer be controlled in the depths of the earth would be superfluous with a modern fuel cycle. Nuclear waste would be stored in accessible storage facilities where regular controls and, if necessary, interventions are possible. Only this way of treating nuclear waste is responsible. Nuclear waste must not be slipped into future generations for hundreds of thousands of years. The polluters or at least their grandchildren have to solve this problem.
Nuclear power plants do not emit any pollutants and have an excellent CO2 balance
All waste products from a nuclear power plant remain locked in the nuclear power plant. No carbon dioxide is released. Even taking into account the manufacture of the systems and buildings as well as the production of fuel, the carbon footprint of nuclear power is comparable to that of hydropower or wind energy. Solar energy already has a poorer carbon footprint. As soon as these external processes were also fed with nuclear energy, nuclear energy would be completely climate neutral.
Nuclear energy is the basis of a hydrogen economy
Hydrocarbons are indispensable as fuels, chemical raw materials and for the production of cement, even if the economy is largely electrified. Synthetic fuels can be a sustainable alternative to electric cars in the future, which are unpopular due to their short range, especially in winter, the high costs, poor CO2 balance, environmental damage caused by battery production and the unresolved fire hazard. For the production of synthetic fuels, however, huge amounts of energy are required, if possible at the location of the refinery. If the medium-sized Leuna refinery were to provide its products using hydrogen from electrolysis, it would need more than a quarter of all German electricity consumption. Electricity of this magnitude at low prices and with high availability, as required for a process engineering plant, can only be provided by nuclear energy. Modern generation IV reactor concepts also offer the possibility of avoiding expensive electrolysis and generating hydrogen directly by thermochemical means.
The availability of nuclear fuel is practically unlimited
It is often said that nuclear fuel will only be available for a few decades. However, this claim is based on unrealistic assumptions. First of all, known uranium deposits are assumed. Reconditioning is excluded and a large part of the raw material is therefore not used. A closed fuel cycle with the use of uranium 238 is also excluded. Furthermore, the reduction is considered at the current prices. Besides uranium, thorium is also excluded as a possible raw material.
All of these assumptions are not tenable on closer inspection. Throwing away a large part of the uranium is politically wanted. The range can be increased simply by reprocessing. The use of uranium 238 in breeder reactors leads to an immense increase in range. The uranium price already plays practically no role in the cost of nuclear power, as the consumption per generated power is very low. A multiplication of the uranium price through the development of new deposits would be completely unproblematic. An efficient use of uranium through a closed fuel cycle would make the cost of uranium extraction so insignificant that it could be extracted from any source with the smallest uranium content. This includes seawater, which contains low levels of uranium. If the thorium can also be used, nuclear energy is virtually inexhaustible and in any case available for tens of thousands of years.
The current energy transition is not affordable
Various studies that examined the feasibility of the federal government’s 80 percent or 95 percent reduction target for CO2 forecast costs in the range of 1 to 2 trillion euros by 2050., The energy system financed with it also costs more in the long term than the current one. The research centre Jülich calculates additional costs in the amount of 102 to 192 billion euros per year, minus saved costs for fossil raw materials. Nevertheless, the additional costs are in the range of today’s overall social budget in Germany.
In view of the many advantages of nuclear energy and the disadvantages of alternatives, it is necessary to stop and reverse the phase out nuclear energy in Germany. In detail, the necessary measures are:
- the continued operation of the existing nuclear power plants, provided they are still economical and meet the safety standards;
- securing German skills in the construction of nuclear power plants by continuing research centers, university chairs, training opportunities for new engineers and physicists and skills in companies through public contracts and funds;
- the abandonment of the final storage of long-term radioactive substances that could still be recycled;
- a new research program for the future of nuclear energy, in particular for the development and construction of prototypes of Generation IV generators, for the reprocessing and transmutation of decay products and a preferably closed fuel cycle, for alternative fuels based on thorium;
- the construction of a reprocessing plant in Germany so that radioactive material remains in Germany and can be checked here;
- in the medium term the construction of new and modern nuclear power plants for the electricity supply;
- in the long term, the production of synthetic fuels using nuclear energy in order to also supply the transport and heating sector as well as industrial plants with a clean energy source and to reduce dependence on fossil raw materials.
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 See footnote Nr. 2.
* Free translation of the original text “Kernenergie – Na klar!“, which was written in 2021 on behalf of the AfD parliamentary group in Saxony.