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Germany's N-surprise

Germany's N-surprise

Germany has decided to shut all its nuclear power reactors by 2022, which may have wide-ranging ramifications for other nations including India, says R Srinivasan.

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant incident, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a volte-face of her previous policy, announced that Germany has decided to shut all its 17 nuclear power reactors by 2022 with eight of its ageing reactors to be shut down immediately, six reactors will be shut by 2021 and the three newest reactors will be shut down a year later. Merkel, who is a PhD in physics, said technologically advanced Japan's “helplessness” in the Fukushima disaster made her rethink. It was widely reported that she revised her stand not only because of the power plant disaster, but also in view of elections that are due in 2013. In 2010, she had pushed through measures to extend the lifespan of the country's reactors with the last one scheduled to go offline in 2036.

Impact on other countries

Worldwide, there are about 442 nuclear reactors that supply about 15 per cent of the electricity to around 30 countries. Thirty-one countries operate nuclear power stations, and a considerable number of new reactors are being built in China, South Korea, India and Russia. But in March 2011 after the Fukushima Power Plant incident, the International Energy Agency halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity built by 2035.

US has 104 nuclear plants in 31 states that produce about 20 of the nation's electricity. About 23 reactors in US use the same design parameters like the one at Japan's Daiichi plant. The Obama administration on 2 June 2011 said that it is committed to nuclear energy.

After the Chernobyl incident, Italy had phased out nuclear and now an Italian court has ruled that Italians can vote on whether the country should return to nuclear power. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries said that it plans to build 16 civilian nuclear reactors in the next two decades at a cost of $80 billion.

France, which relies on nuclear power to produce 80 per cent of its electricity supply, insisted that there is no way for the European Union to meet its emission-cutting targets without at least some N-power.

Switzerland, where nuclear power produces 40 per cent electricity, announced that it plans to shut down its reactors gradually once they reach their average life span of 50 years — which will mean taking the last plant off the grid in 2034.


A day after Germany decided to phase out all its nuclear power plants, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India must make use of nuclear energy to meet both its energy needs as well as emission targets and that if India is to meet its emission targets, we need a combination of nuclear along with renewables. But in terms of ramping up nuclear power generation capacity to 20,000 MW by 2020 and 63,000 MW by 2032, he said that no firm decision has yet been taken. Nuclear energy today accounts for only about 3 per cent of total energy generated in our system and the target is 6 per cent by 2020.

In a related development, he asked the concerned nuclear authorities to put in place safety measures at the installations. It was reported that at the meeting, installation of high tech gadgets to detect radiation and fast-tracking the creation of more battalions for the disaster response force was discussed.

After the Fukushima incident, Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) was to implement additional shore protection measures at nuclear power stations located on coastal areas as per the recommendations made by task forces. The task forces had called for an augmentation of water inventory, arrangement for the transfer of water from nearby sources and additional hook up points to compensate for water spent at fuel pools at the Tarapur, Rajasthan and Madras units. (See Stats, pg XX)

Of the 20 operating nuclear reactors in India, 18 are pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and 2 (at Tarapur) are boiling water reactors (BWRs) like the ones in Japan.

NPCIL said that French company Areva's European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) for the Jaitapur plant and Russian Rosatom's VVER reactors for India's Kudankulam have core catcher features under the pressure vessel which will prevent a core melt as it will collect and retain the molten core if the reactor vessel fails. Also, with regard to the Fukushima plant which faced a problem for cooling fuel rods due to power cuts, atomic energy commission (AEC) and atomic energy regulatory board (AERB) said that our plants have passive cooling features, which do not need electricity during the cooling down process in an emergency. This is vital given the erratic power supply in our country.

After effects for Germany

Businesses and companies have warned of power shortages and increased energy costs which could cripple German industry, especially in the regions that depend on nuclear power plants for electricity supplies. While most facilities will be closed by 2021, only three of the 17 generating stations will be left in operation for an additional year, to ensure that there is energy if shortages develop.

A) Legal action against government

The big four utility firms (E.ON, RWE, EnBW and and Swedish-based Vattenfall) are now considering legal action against the government. The largest energy company in Germany (E.ON) has said that it will consider legal action against the government for keeping a tax on spent fuel rods in place, despite backtracking on a decision to extend the life of the nuclear plants by an average of 12 years. An analyst said that the costs for decommissioning reactors, earlier than previously expected, could be between 100 million and 1 billion Euros.

The nuclear fuel tax had been introduced at the beginning of 2011. Officially the government has labelled the levy as part of an austerity package. However, market observers have linked the tax directly to the extension of reactor operating lives, which was announced by the government at the same time.

B) Need for grids

At present, Germany gets about 23 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants, compared to about 17 per cent from renewables, nearly half from coal and about 13 per cent from natural gas. The aim now will be to cut electricity usage by 10 per cent by 2020, boost renewables (wind, solar and hydroelectric) to 35 per cent of the energy mix in the same period and use more natural gas as a bridge until renewables can make up the shortfall left by the shutdown. But after it phases out the reactors, the government will have to construct 3,600 km of power lines by 2020 to link renewable energy projects (offshore wind farms etc) with consumers and guarantee stability on the grid.

C) Decision to go green

The share of electricity produced from renewable energy in Germany has increased from 6.3 per cent of the national total in 2000 to about 16.1 per cent in 2009. In 2010, nearly 17 per cent of Germany's electricity supply was produced from renewable energy sources and the renewable energy sector already employs about 370,000 people.

Wind power currently produces about 7 per cent of that country's total power and it provides over 70,000 people with jobs.

The country is also one of the world's leading solar photovoltaic (PV) energy producers, with a solar capacity of almost 17 GW, 40,000 employees and a 2 per cent electricity market share. In 2009, the government calculated that the PV industry had provided 64,700 jobs in production, distribution and installation. Over 90 per cent of solar PV installations are in grid-tied applications in Germany.

Hydropower meets 3.5 per cent of the electricity demand and latest estimates show that in Germany approximately 9,400 people were employed in the sector.

Companies based in Germany such as Nordex, Repower, Fuhrländer and Enercon (in wind energy) and SolarWorld, Q-Cells and Conergy (in solar) dominate the world market. Every third solar panel and every second wind rotor is made in Germany and their turbines and generators used in hydro power generation are among the most popular worldwide.

The way ahead

Merkel, while announcing the phasing out of nuclear plants, had said that Germany wants to reduce its CO2 emissions by 40 per cent and double its share of renewable energy. She said that this will show those countries that have decided to abandon nuclear power how to achieve growth, create jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies.

This decision could have a ripple effect since Germany is the world's fifth largest consumer of nuclear energy in terms of megawatts consumed after the US, France, Japan and Russia.

The country is also a world leader in the use of renewable energy for electricity generation, especially in solar photovoltaic and wind turbine installations. So if it successfully makes the switch to renewables, other countries too may decide to follow this model.

Reactors in Germany

Currently, Germany operates 11 pressurised water reactors (PWR) and six boiling water reactors (BWRs) and nuclear power provides 28 per cent of Germany's electricity. Incidentally, the Fukushima plant too was operating boiling water reactors. The German government announced plans to shut down seven of the country's glitch-prone nuclear power plants since they had been in operation even before 1980. The plants had been running for about 12 years beyond their original shutdown date, despite protests even before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

“There are no safety concerns in phasing out nuclear power” – Sudhinder Thakur, Distinguished Scientist & Fellow, NPCI

If there was cause for concern, Germany would not have waited till 2022 or accepted the many French nuclear plants in the bordering areas, says Sudhinder Thakur.

What criteria were used to shut down the German nuclear plants?
The phase out of nuclear power in Germany has been a political issue for quite some time. The previous German government – a coalition of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens decided to phase out nuclear power by 2021. In September 2010, however, the government decided to extend the life of nuclear plants by about 12 years on average. Nuclear power in Germany with a share of about 23 per cent was a most dominant source. The low cost of electricity generation from nuclear sources also led to a tax on used fuel expected about 2 billion Euros a year. This was a pre-March 11 – the day of Fukushima accident – situation.

Immediately after the accident, Germany decided to shut down seven pre-1980 reactors for detailed safety review. Now the government has decided not to start these reactors and phase out nuclear power by 2022. They expect to meet the demand from energy efficiency and renewable sources. While there is lack of optimism in some quarters for this plan, they can always bank on coal and nuclear power from adjoining France and will import electricity which they earlier used to export.

The reasons at best can be understood as political or changing ideologies rather than technical. The Germans have also committed to reducing their emissions. Though some aspects are not fully understood at this time, I am sure they will keep their commitments. After all they decided to and implemented the reunion in 1989. Surely, there are no safety concerns in phasing out N-power otherwise they would not wait till 2022 or accept many French nuclear plants in the bordering areas.

What safety measures are we (in India) using that are different from older plants?
Age is not a factor as far as safety of the plants is concerned. All reactors are subjected to periodic safety reviews and the operating license is renewed only after the regulatory authorities are convinced about their safety. The licence to operate the plant is renewed once in five years based on a safety review.

What kinds of reactors are used in India and how safe are they?
Out of 20 reactors in operation in the country, two are BWRs and 18 are pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs). In addition, one fast-breeder reactor (500 MW), two PWRs (2,000 MW) and four PHWRs (2,800 MW) are under construction. The safety performance of about 340 reactor-years of operation has been good. The high on – line hours performance, number of scrams per 7,000 hours worked, availability of safety systems, fuel reliability, industrial safety are some of the safety performance indicators. This performance is comparable to the global performance. As an example, one reactor at Tarapur, in operation since 1969, worked uninterrupted for 590 days from 22 July 2009 to 3 March 2011 when it was shut down for refuelling. Such a performance is testimony of the highest safety standards. Of course, one cannot be complacent about safety and the target is to continuously improve.

Any reactors worthy of being shut down using Germany's criteria?
There are no safety or technical criteria in Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power. Some countries do not have nuclear power (Australia), some countries have nuclear power (France) and there are some countries that had nuclear power but decided to phase out (Italy). So Germany has decided to keep company with Italy rather than France in future with regard to nuclear power.

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