Thursday, June 2, 2011

Nuclear Energy and National Identity, part II: Rational Germany?

© Arne Müseler / / CC-BY-SA-3.0
In the respectable German weekly Die Zeit, this week's editorial article is titled in English: "No risk, no fun!", and it addresses the German nuclear phase out also from a strictly national perspective. It serves well as a counterpart to the Telegraph article; it again shows that energy is not a question of simply physics, mathematics and countability. Instead, the question of energy is deeply related to national cultures. As if national identity were fueled by energy!
While Daniel Johnson's Germany is still one characterized by WWII, Bernd Ulrich paints a peaceful picture of post-war Germany in Die Zeit; a Germany as it presented itself for example during the World Cup 2006.  The spirit of his euphoric celebration of the nuclear phase out is inspired by this imagery. Already in 1954, after the defeat on the battle field, Germany surprised on the soccer pitch: "We are back again!" The article breathes the same spirit of "we are back again - wir sind wieder wer"; the nuclear phase out is here presented as another step into a peaceful future; this time from the nuclear cooling ponds to a renewable energy future.
(The article is not online, and there is no English version; the summary and translations in the following are all of my responsibility).

"Why the nuclear phase out  is so interesting - despite all warnings", that's how Bernd Ulrich starts his editorial. He looks back on a troubled 40 year history of fights about nuclear energy. The achieved peace now is both precious and costly, he argues. No risk, no fun - he compares chancellor Merkel's surprising turn in the nuclear question with former chancellor Schroeder's (in)famous Agenda 2010: finally, she takes risks; finally she has a project which will be identified with her name.
But the best for him is not that this conflict is finally closed; instead, the best is that this decision bears risks, it is adventurous. Finally, Germans are self-confident again; crazy with self-consciousness. And this self-confidence is based on four characteristics ascribed to "the Germans" by the author:
1) Germans are good in inventing machines;
2) they are pretty good organizers;
3) they are pretty good philosophers, and
4) they are ready to discuss things at the round table whenever necessary.
In short, Bernd Ulrich sees the nuclear phase out as a national project. Germany will be leading in the export of alternative energies; each engineer, each plumber will think about how to avoid emissions and how to save energy; after so many politically boring years, discussions pro and con wind energy, smart grids, the best way to reduce emissions etc. will animate the public sphere; and, best of all, nobody has to be afraid that one of those nuclear beasts will explode. Politics now deserve their name, and politics will change, for sure. It's far from perfect, but it's a start. And, by the way, Germany does not want to conquer the world with renwable energies; instead, it wants to sell the technology. All of this reminds Bernd Ulrich of the democracy movements in the seventies (when he was politically socialized, I suppose), and he is in a celebratory mood now: Rhubarb-Spritzer for all!


Peter Heller said...

Again somebody without a deeper knowledge about the course of innovation and without an insight into the characteristics of technology tries to comment on energy policies from a technical perspective. And one can expect, that this leads to false conclusions.

All the types of alternative electricity generation proposed to replace nuclear energy cannot be characterized as "innovative" or "high tech" or even "advanced technology". There are no challenges for engineers in wind energy or biomass. And therefore there will be no market for any export, all of these types of electricity generation can be created by potential foreign users on their own. If not today, then soon.

From a technological point of view especially biomass and wind energy, the cornerstones of the energy concept of the German government, are backsteps.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Mr Heller: "From a technological point of view especially biomass and wind energy, the cornerstones of the energy concept of the German government, are backsteps."

Can you explain in more detail what you mean by this?

P Gosselin said...

I agree with Peter Heller in that the government is taking backsteps, i.e. steps backwards technically. Will it be possible to run society with wind and sun?
Sure, and why not?
Society can be run with horses and carriages too. But the question remains will society accept it once reality sinks in? Economics are tough to fool.

Peter Heller said...

@ Grundmann:

Ok, I will try it:

1. Power density:
Windenergy: 2 W/m2
Biomass: 0,5 W/m2
(maximum under optimal conditions, principal, no way to raise in the frame of the fundamental laws of nature)
conventional power plant (coal, gas, nuclear): 4.000 W/m2

2. Efficiency:
For wind energy you need 20 to 40 times more steel, concrete and other material, than for conventional energy sources per Watt.

3. Resilience:
Wind and biomass both depend on the weather. Both require high efforts for maintenance, repair and overhaul. This is an unsolved problem especially for offshore wind turbines. Biomass requires large amounts of "combustibles" (due to the low energy density of crops), this leads to high transportation efforts and large amounts of waste.
Both of them do need special geographic conditions, which are much more unbalanced allocated around the world than conventional energy resources.

4. Knowledge:
All biomass-technologies have been developed until the 1930s. The principal process for biogas and other biofuels ("anoxische Vergärung") is well known since then. The same is true for electricity generation from wind. All components needed for biomass as well as for windenergy are standard technologies from other applications. Neither wind nor biomass ever created any need for applied research on their specific nature, the engineering tasks linked to them never contributed to applied research. This is totally opposite for conventional power (e.g. combustion, turbines, nuclear physics).

5. Further development:
Shape and overall design of wind turbines as well as the mechanical components are fully developed ("ausentwickelt") since the 1930s. Therefore all development activities at the moment (especially public funded projects) concentrate on materials and on the structure, not on the functional parts. There are some potentials in biomass for higher efficiency, e.g. using genetic engineering (linked to bacteria and algae) - but this is also attacked by the green movement in Germany, as you may know.

From this point of view the most promising alternative energy sources today are photovoltaics and deep geothermal energy. I do not count water as alternative, because from the technological point of view it is the most conventional source of all.

eduardo said...

An excerpt of the interview with Steward Brand, in which he refers to nuclear energy and the German decision, published by The European here:

The European: Speaking of mistakes: You have defended nuclear power as a green source of energy. Has Fukushima led you to revise your position?
Brand: Not at all. Climate change has forced me to look at alternative sources of energy that reduce carbon emissions on a large scale. Gas is better than coal. Wind and solar power are better than coal, but they are expensive and thus far haven’t made a significant contribution to our energy mix. I think that large solar farms in Northern Africa could eventually power Europe, but that’s in the distant future. So we need to look elsewhere. Nuclear power can reduce greenhouse gases. Once I began to take that idea seriously, I found that my fellow environmentalists tend to greatly exaggerate the dangers of nuclear power. I think nuclear fusion would be a swell option, but for now we have to work with what we have. Nuclear technology has been widely implemented, and the technology is advancing every year.

The European: The German government is fairly confident that we can abandon nuclear energy by 2023 if we focus on gas, on renewables and on a decentralization of the power grid. Is that not a realistic goal?
Brand: I don’t think Germany is even remotely able to do that.

Werner Krauss said...

@Peter Heller:

forward - backward seems to me a strange criterion. Energy supply is important.
By the way, the nuclear phase out is not initiated by the environmental movement; instead, it is the CDU / FDP coalition, both not known as "green" or against innovation.

Werner Krauss said...

@P Gosselin #3

you write:
"Society can be run with horses and carriages too."

Polemics can be so boring. Why even write down a sentence like this? What's the use? It doesn't make any sense at all. It's not society that is far from reality; instead, your statement is.

Werner Krauss said...

That's an interesting opinion. Obviously, Stewart 'Whole Earth' Brand is not impressed by Fukushima. Obviously, Merkel and her friends are. And they are in power. Nuclear energy is subject to politics. There is no higher technological or scientific rationality which can decide for us what to do.
I think you will find serious experts for both, nuclear and anti-nuclear. In the end, it is politics that decides. And as everybody knows, politics changes its directions, from time to time.
We have no idea what the future will bring.
Of course, it is an option to live without nuclear energy. I haven't seen manifestations on the street pro nuclear energy. Big nuclear industry and nuclear science lobby will protest. Well, we don't have to feel sorry for them, do we?

Instead, I have seen the rise of the Green party in Baden Württemberg - they ended the age old CDU Empire in the South. That means something. It is a high technology area, innovation, industry, and: both conservative and now green. That means something, not at least for Merkel and the CDU.

There is nothing anti-democratic about this. If it doesn't work, people and politicians will change their mind again - as everybody knows. But maybe it works, and we don't have to think about catastrophe management in case of nuclear emergencies any more. That's good news for the both of us in Hamburg, Eduardo! There would be no way out of Hamburg in case of an explosion in a well-known old nuclear plant at the river Elbe, as everybody knows...

Anonymous said...

The "Atomkraft Nein Danke"movement has prevented any progress in nuclear technologies. If this is not a step backward, it is not a step forward either.

The box of the pandora has been opened 70 years ago. Progress can't be stopped. If we don't do it others will. Imho this whole thing is just hysterical.

We landed on the moon in 1969. Would you call it innovation when "nothing" happened since then?

Scientists being more political than anybody else is very alarming imo. What will happen to science and truth?

Peter Heller said...

@ Werner Krauss:

"forward - backward seems to me a strange criterion. Energy supply is important."

Seen from a social or political viewpoint you are correct.

But when it comes to questions like "is it challenging for our engineers?" or "is it marketable (export)?" you have to take into account technological aspects like "power density", "resilience", "efficiency" and "knowledge base".

And based on this aspects wind and biomass could have been succesful innovations in the 19th century, not today. When they finally made their way from "idea" to "invention" to "innovation" in the 1930s they were not marketable any longer. As today.

This is, what Pierre and I mentioned in our comments in different words. Pierres picture of horse carriages says all.

eduardo said...


My worry is that the Coalition Government, especially some circles in the CDU, are not thinking 10 or 20 years ahead, pondering over all aspects of a nuclear energy shut down, which are still quite murky, but rather thinking about who will be their next coalition partner after the next federal election. The electricity network needs a considerable expansion, electricity storage systems need to not just developed but almost invented anew. These are not simply nibbles, and nobody knows who is going to cook them.
Of course, as you said, it may be that this decision is intended to be just symbolic, and when the true difficulties become clear in year or two, a new parliament will reverse the decision. Or that RWE just builds the new nuclear plants in Poland anticipating the electricity demand that German producers will not be able to meet. Most probable is an expansion of natural gas due to its cheap and rapidly built generation plants and the expanding shale gas supply. This leads to an increase in carbon emissions. Not very big in global terms, but the exemplary role that Germany wanted to play on the world stage will be snuffed out.

I would not object to a serious and deep debate about nuclear energy, even ending with a referendum (if this is not a long term important issue to decide by all, which else ?). But I do object a decision taken in a few months in the heat of an electoral moment and which taken seriously is a huge bet on a country's future. This behavior fits a Mediterranean government rather than a serious northern European one.

Werner Krauss said...

@ Peter Heller #10
Thanks for clarification. The problem seems to be between the social / political realm and what is technologically possible. Energy technologies necessarily have to be rooted in societies, otherwise they are no alternatives. I understand that this is a problem for engineers.

Werner Krauss said...

@ Eduardo

I think it's not "the heat of the moment". It is, as Rainer says some place else here, a back to the red / green coalition plan which was suspended by the current coalition.
And we shouldn't underestimate politicians. The change in Baden Württemberg from CDU to Green / Red was indeed a milestone in German post-war history. This change occurred in a hi-tech Land with a highly educated electorate; they don't want to go back into the stone age. And one should not underestimate 40 years of resistance against nuclear energy. The nuclear industry and supporting politicians contributed a lot to their current miserable situation!