Atomkraft: It’s Complicated

I don’t know if you’re paying attention to German politics (probably not) but there’s some crazy stuff going down about nuclear energy. Last weekend 50,000 Germans protested and camped in the woods for two or three days to prevent a train full of radioactive waste from arriving at its destination: a dumping ground in Gorleben.

The anti-nuclear movement is huge here. Its logo is a smiling sun with the motto Atomkraft? Nein, danke. (Nuclear energy? No thanks!)

I came to Berlin from Calgary, a conservative corner of Canada, and my knee-jerk reaction on learning about the anti-nuke movement was “ugh, hippies.”

Truth is I never realized how conservative my thinking had become. I remember, when I moved to Calgary, meeting people whose political opinions were far more economically conservative than mine. I learned a lot by debating with them, and shifted a lot of my views to the right because their arguments were pretty good. I still think free markets can be a powerful driver of efficiency and change for the better.

However, living in Berlin has brought me into contact with people who are far more “left” than I’d ever been, and you know what? Their arguments are pretty good too.

Like I said, I had written off the anti-nuke movement as pure lefty daydreaming but it isn’t. At all.

Here I quote a fantastic comment from Reddit that outlines some of the stuff going on:

A couple of decades ago the government decided that if the nuclear energy companies want to produce their energy they have to tell where the waste can be contained securely for thousands of years.

To achieve this goal some people got the task to search for possible depots. This was done to a time the wall divided Germany. …

Unfortunately the decision got political and the head of the state wrote by hand a new name to the list: Gorleben. This was done without any scientific studies, done in the very contrast to the report’s findings and in very contrast to the opinion of the leading researcher.

A little information about some possible depots helps to understand Gorleben’s selection: The other depots were in the middle of states, while Gorleben was on the very edge of the GDR.

A little jump to the future: As current Chancellor Merkel was Environmental Minister she signed a report in which is stated that more or less: the salt [mine] Gorleben lacks the indication that it can function as a permanent barrier to prevent contamination (this is also stated in various other reports). But while she knew this report she and the Kohl-government decided to ignore this problems and tell the public that everything with Gorleben is fine.

Today it is common knowledge in Germany that in the nuclear waste depot Gorleben as well as in other depots there is salt water entering the depots. There is often more waste in the depots than it was told and here is a picture of the secure deposition. The costs for a possible evacuation of the site are not calculated into anything right now, while it is possible that the salt water makes it necessary to either manually secure the mine (which is highly cost intensive) or evacuate the waste.

Back to the nuclear waste problem: The castor transports will bring nuclear waste to Gorleben without direct deposition. The incoming waste has to be cool down for several years under free air (well in a storage room upon the mine) before it can be put under the earth. So right now the situation is that the waste has to cool down under fresh air and it is not sure that it is safe to put it into Gorleben, because Gorleben is not safe and may collapse in some point of the future. Still it gets transported and paid by the government and not by the corporation responsible for the waste.

… The “Atomausstieg” (shutting all nuclear power plants down within the next years) was decided and was [agreed upon] by many parties and also the energy companies. The current government of CDU / FDP changed this and reallowed the use of nuclear power in the next 12 to 20 years – while reducing the effective tax of the companies.

Any free market supporter would agree that there is some heavy corruption going on there. It’s gross. It’d be like the Alberta government reducing taxes for oil companies (oh wait, they do). Or, the Americans reducing taxes on unsustainable factory farming (oh wait, they do).

Now I know what you’re going to say: what is the alternative to nuclear energy? Germany needs power and even though the average German uses half the power of the average American or Canadian, we still consume lots of electricity.

This is the point at which the lefties say that sustainable power (wind and solar) can support Germany’s needs completely given further research and development. The righties disagree and say there’s no data and so we’d best stick with sources we know, like nuclear, rather than running wildly into wind farms and solar collectors. Well:

Another interesting fact: The biggest energy companies told that it is not possible to produce more than 4% of Germany’s primary energy need with regeneratve energies – ever. This number was succeded by 300% in the end of 2007.

That’s the money quote right there.

I absolutely believe that within 50 years the entirety of the Earth’s energy requirements can and will be provided through sustainable energy sources. However, this reality could do with a hell of a lot more research money.

If nuclear energy was supported by a real free market and had adequate safeguards I would completely accept its popularity. I don’t accept the story as laid out above (assuming it’s true).

I probably won’t go lie down on the track the next time the nuclear waste train rumbles by, but I have no desire to be a part of a system that uses corruption and subsidization to support an unsustainable and undesirable status quo.

Like I said, it’s complicated.