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Nuclear energy's future unclear

Armed with only a vague understanding of German attitudes toward climate change and energy, I was surprised to learn that the general German population is intent on ending nuclear power in its country. I was aware of concerns over radioactive waste storage and transportation, but didn’t realize the opposition overshadowed the industry’s low-carbon footprint in the face of climate change in Germany.

In fact, some in the German nuclear power debate felt that some nuclear utilities were given a generous 12-year extension; The nuclear power plants turn off in 2034. The last nuclear unit deactivates in 2036.

“It’s a political decision. … The public in Germany is very much against nuclear power,” said Claudia Kemfert, professor of Energy Economics and Sustainability at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

Much like the U.S., Germany considers natural gas its “bridge fuel” to the next generation of energy. While Germany sees renewables as its next generation of energy, it’s still unclear what the U.S. sees on the other side of the natural gas bridge.

At the invitation of the American Council on Germany, I was part of an American delegation that visited with Kemfert and dozens of other Germans and Europeans on energy policy matters earlier this month in Berlin. Kemfert said the Hertie School of Governance supports a goal of 80 percent renewables for Germany’s energy portfolio by 2050 — a goal impossible to meet without natural gas, she said.

Given Russia’s control over the vast natural gas resource in the region, turning off all of Germany’s nuclear power by 2034 sounded a bit drastic — or is it optimistic?

Later, I mentioned to another energy official that France seems comfortable with their nuclear power — the country’s main source of electricity. Well, the official joked, who can explain how France thinks?

France, like Wyoming, is a net exporter of electricity. Part of the French thinking must be economics. Given Wyoming’s overwhelming doubt of anything to do with climate change, our state’s general desire to foster a resurgence in uranium mining has a lot less to do with cooling the planet and more to do with (some would argue short-term) economics.

But Wyoming’s support of uranium mining isn’t a settled issue. So far, existing and planned uranium mining and processing operations are in remote locations. But don’t under-estimate the potency of local opposition when relations break down between a developer and a community – even a rural one. New York Times reporter Kirk Johnson explains that just across the border in Colorado a proposal to revive uranium processing has also revived a decades-old debate; Can any company be expected to be free of human error in handling radioactive material?

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Energy and policy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer recently completed a John S. Knight Journalism fellowship at Stanford University. He has covered energy and natural resource issues in Wyoming for 18 years. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer

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One Response to Nuclear energy's future unclear

  1. Coal Miner January 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    A sane national energy policy cannot be crafted from the wants and desires of special interest groups (SIGs). Though favored by SIGs, solar and wind are costly and inherently unreliable, while ethanol uses more energy to produce than it provides. Those energy sources proven to be reliable and cheap, nuclear and coal, are viewed by SIGs as unsafe or polluting. Natural gas could be an option, but it will require huge infrastructure improvements and can be costly. In view of our budget deficit, it is apparent that we cannot entrust our nation’s energy future to political scientists (politicians), journalists, or SIGs. They are incapable of producing reliable math or lucid thought.

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