The devastating March earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused a meltdown at the country’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, and triggered the latest cycle of drama in the ongoing and tumultuous affair with nuclear power.
Two months after the Fukushima incident, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her country would completely end its reliance on nuclear power. By 2022, Germany plans to close all of its 17 existing nuclear reactors.
The announcement has fueled speculation and debate, with much of the focus of that discussion turning to the United States. Would the United States follow Germany’s lead?
Opponents of nuclear power would certainly like to think so, and if the German example is successful, it could be a powerful model. However, there are some very important distinctions between the two countries, and what is good for one cannot necessarily be expected to work for the other.
Shortly after Japan’s disaster, President Obama reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to nuclear power. He had asserted that commitment only a few months earlier in his State of the Union address, as part of a plan to wean the nation off of fossil fuels. The plan lumped nuclear in with renewables, natural gas and other “clean fuels,” as the best hope for the country’s energy future.
The German announcement explained that the country plans to make up for the loss of nuclear power with efficiency and a greater reliance on renewables. It’s a tall order since it currently receives nearly a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power. To compensate for the loss of that much generation, Germany plans to double renewables’ share from 17 to 34 percent in the next decade.
In contrast, the United States currently has more than 100 nuclear reactors in operation, nearly six times as many as Germany. U.S. reactors account for a far greater total amount of electricity produced than they do in Germany. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors produced 100 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2009. U.S. nuclear reactors produced 799 billion kWh. On the other hand, the U.S. nuclear reactors account for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity production, a figure that is only slightly smaller than the German share.
Still, support and momentum for renewables is at its strongest point ever, and there is no reason to believe that Germany’s goal to replace nuclear power with renewables couldn’t be replicated in the United States and elsewhere. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in May that asserts renewables could meet nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy supply by the middle of this century if the proper public policies are put in place.