Europe’s Real Energy Wake-Up Call
No, the answer is not fossil fuels; it's nuclear.
“Energy Crisis Is a ‘Wake Up Call’ For Europe to Ditch Fossil Fuels,” declares CNN. That rather sounds like fossil fuels are becoming scarce there, which they’re not. Besides, the U.S. alone could ship enough coal to tide Europe over for at least a few centuries—including to Newcastle.
The crisis that has European energy prices soaring, such that the green-conscious Euros are eyeing coal, has two bases: A move away from fossil fuels to comply with global climate change accords and a concurrent shift away from nuclear energy.
In trying to meet its Paris Treaty obligations, Europe has tremendously reduced fossil fuel extraction capacity. Add the economic bounce-back from the Covid lockdowns, plus such factors as low Norwegian hydroelectric reservoirs and opportunistic Russian gas manipulation, and Europe is left scrambling for energy, including burning more coal and petroleum and paying as much as five times for natural gas as last year, while U.S. prices are about double.
The fact is, Europe could have been at zero-emissions for electricity and heating long ago. (Though note these are just part of overall so-called “greenhouse gas emissions”; globally one quarter.) We know from the French experience. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, France went on a massive nuclear plant building spree such that it was getting practically all its electricity from nukes or other non-fossil sources like hydroelectric. Sacré bleu, it was even exporting to other countries!
Germany was heading in that direction, with 36 nuclear plants providing almost a third of the nation’s electricity. Not surprisingly, knowing German technological skill, that included the world’s most productive plant. Overall demand hasn’t risen much since then, so, given other carbon-free sources such as hydroelectric and geothermal, it’s entirely conceivable that fossil-fuel fired plants could have been completely replaced. Then, like France, Germany could have become a net electricity exporter.
The country’s position would have been all the better when you consider the example of U.S. nuclear plants, which have progressively produced more power, almost a doubling through what is called “nameplate capacity factor.” Capacity factors for U.S. nuclear power plants are currently 92.5 percent, compared to only 55.9 percent in 1975, enabling generating costs to drop about a third just since 2012. That capacity factor also leaves every other form of energy in the dust with coal at 40.2 percent, wind at 35.4 percent, and solar voltaic at just 24.9 percent.
But rather than being Deutschland uber alles, the country’s powerful green movement convinced now-outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel not just to stop building new plants but to start shuttering those in operation. Anti-nuclear activists followed a now common script. They first exploited the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, with its perhaps 50 people quickly killed (almost all first responders) and then maybe 4,000 more dying over time from lower-dose radiation exposure according to a U.N. report. Never mind that comparing a Soviet nuke plant to a German one is like comparing a smoky 2-stroke East German-era Trabant to a new Porsche.
Thence to the Fukushima, Japan, disaster in 2011. An incredible 9.0 offshore earthquake (one of the five largest ever recorded) led to a massive tsunami. It swept over whole towns (the videos are horrifying), including the world’s largest seawall, and into coastal nuclear facilities. This caused meltdowns at three reactors because instead of having a passive shutdown system the “Generation-II” Japanese plants relied on an active system of emergency diesel generators erroneously located at a lower elevation than the reactor buildings. That knocked them out and also made proper heat dissipation impossible. Even still, while over 19,000 people died or disappeared in the quake and tsunami, so far only one death has been attributed to radiation leakage.
But never mind that Germany ranks quite low in seismic activity and doesn’t get a lot of tsunamis. Teutonic troublemakers saw their opening and Merkel, despite her physics degree, completely caved and ordered a nuclear phase-out. Now all German plants but six have been shuttered and those are scheduled to shut down next year even though they still provide a vital 10 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Instead about a fourth of Germany’s home-grown electricity comes from coal, the overwhelming majority being the dirtiest variety, brown lignite. Rather than exporting clean electricity, it exports dirty coal. Rather than being an energy exporter, it relies heavily on imports—mostly Russian.
Germany likes to boast of its high “renewable energy” use. But since it imports so much energy, what does it matter what it produces domestically anyway? As it happens, it’s the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Europe—though in fairness, that’s as a country, not per capita. Its electricity prices including taxes are the highest in the world. It’s just not a sunny country, especially in the north, thus their solar farms make no sense. (I once spent three weeks there in summer with virtually no sunshine.)
Germans also pay over twice what Americans do per unit of heating gas, in part because, like Europe generally, they are so heavily dependent on Russian gas imports that in turn keep Putin and his klepto-cronies in office. If Germany had kept its nuclear fleet running while still building renewable generation, it would be burning 25 percent less gas and a third less coal for electricity according to a 2019 National Bureau of Economic Research paper.
As for the U.S., it has steadily decreased greenhouse gas emissions as a country and per capita essentially by switching to cheaper natural gas from coal. But it, too, is shuttering nukes, albeit slowly and not by fiat, but rather responding to ever-stricter safety demands that make even upgrading an existing plant more expensive than building a new natural gas plant.
France built most of its nuclear capacity in just seven years, and it actually takes only about five years to build a nuclear plant. Further, new plants would be using modern designs. Bill Gates, a major nuclear power booster, notes that almost all plants currently operating were designed with a slide rule. The 3G+ Westinghouse AP1000, computer-designed, shuts down passively without need for operators, generators, or pumps. China has had four in operation for almost a decade, while the Georgia nuclear facility scheduled to come online soon uses two such reactors. Given enough engineers and construction workers with the proper skills, Europe could do in seven years what France did, plus Germany could keep its own plants online.
Yes, upfront nuclear plant costs are quite expensive, in part because of the massive layers of safety features required. The U.S. Department of Energy data that so many rely on to compare energy costs load the dice against nuclear and towards wind by using what it calls “levelized costs” that represent the per-kilowatt-hour cost of financing, building, operating, and maintaining an electricity generation plant over its assumed financial life. But that life is an arbitrary 30 years, which is considerably longer than wind farms are projected to last (20 to 25 years according to the industry, meaning 20 at best) and vastly shorter than nuclear plants last.
Like European cathedrals, a nuclear plant can last forever. One in New York has been in operation since 1969, and the first nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, used the same reactors from when it entered service in 1960 until it was retired in 2012. So, 20 years is stretched to 30 with wind and 52 or more is shrunk to 30 with nuclear. Hardly fair. For operating costs, nuclear is much cheaper than fossil-fuel fired plants or so-called “renewable energy,” meaning biomass, wind, and solar. Further, nuclear plants’ land needs dwarf those of wind and solar facilities, which in addition to the availability of wind and sun can greatly limit where they can be located.
Regardless of whether you buy into what many consider the cult of global climate change, nuclear remains the way to go. As Charles Frank of the Brookings Institution has found, ranking the various forms of energy generation in terms of CO2 displacement: Nuclear energy replaces almost six times the emissions of solar energy, four times that of wind, twice that of hydroelectric energy, and five times that of low-carbon gas.
Michael Fumento (www.fumento.com) has been an attorney, author, and science journalist for over 35 years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times, the Atlantic, and many other fora.