Why is the United States so obsessed with nuclear power?

After the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima, as a German living in the U.S., I often get asked these days: What’s going on in Germany with the shutdown of nuclear power plants — is that all mass hysteria? There are good reasons why Germany is moving away so quickly from nuclear power. Certainly, fear is a factor. However, this angst in the face of a nuclear catastrophe has a rational core. Fukushima provides enough grounds to take every single nuclear power plant on the face of the Earth off-line. Regardless of whether the cause is an earthquake, a tsunami, a flood, a plane crash, a terrorist attack, or simple human error, failure of the emergency power system leads to uncontrollable consequences.

There is also an energy reality in Germany that differs from the United States. In Germany, the economic success of the renewable energy economy is visible between the North Sea and the Alps. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created for steel workers, carpenters, technicians, architects, bankers, and farmers. Foreign companies have heavily invested in manufacturing plants for wind turbines, biogas systems, and solar panels in Germany. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is viewed as a constraint on this development. Nuclear and renewables are not perceived as allies, but as conflicting and competing energy sources. One is centralized, capital-intensive, ponderous, outdated, and anti-democratic, whereas the other is flexible, smart, labor-intensive, and open for community participation. Thus, in recent polls an overwhelming 85 percent of Germans favor a nuclear phaseout as fast as possible or at most within 10 years. To them it seems simply outdated to stick with a 1950s technology like nuclear that is risky, dirty, and blocking new investments in better technologies. It is like to holding on to your rotary phone instead of switching to a cell phone.

Germany: No question if, but how quickly nuclear power will be phased out

Following Fukushima, the German government announced a three-month shutdown of eight of its 17 nuclear power plants and a review of its nuclear strategy. That’s 8,400 megawatts of capacity off the grid. In mid-May, another five nuclear plants are down for maintenance with a capacity of 6,600 megawatts. That leaves four nuclear plants together supplying 5,400 megawatts of power. Are the lights still on? Are the trains still going? Are the car factories still humming? Yes, yes, and yes. No blackout followed; the power supply is stable. Nuclear power capacity is replaced by reducing surplus electricity exports, by using the reserve capacity of traditional back-up power plants for peak times, and by temporarily importing electricity from neighboring countries if necessary. [UPDATE: On June 30th 2011, the German Bundestag decided to shut down all 17 of its nuclear reactors by 2022.]

Some analysts have argued that the nuclear scale-back in Germany would prevent the country from reaching its long-term climate and energy goals. In reality, and as discussed here, Germany is already well on its way to transitioning from nuclear and fossil-fuel power to renewable energy. It is aiming for 35 percent renewables by 2020, and 80-100 percent by 2050. Not despite, but because of shutting down nuclear power, investments in renewable energies accelerate.

As a German living in Washington, D.C., you can’t help asking in return: Why is the accident of Fukushima perceived as something far away without consequences for a broad discussion of the future U.S. energy infrastructure? Why does the myth survive that America depends on nuclear power and must do so in the future? And overall, why is American society so pro-nuclear?

United States: Fukushima and no consequences?

Things run by different rules here in the U.S. than they do in Germany, as the statements from the days after the Fukushima meltdown show. The Obama administration left no room for doubt that it was unimpressed by the events in Japan, and would hold tight not only to nuclear power, but also to the plans to expand it. Energy Undersecretary Dan Poneman announced: “We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we’re trying to build for a clean energy future … Nuclear power has been a critical component to the U.S. energy portfolio [and] … we do see nuclear power as playing an important role in building a low-carbon future.” Most media outlets doubt that the United States can do without nuclear power, indeed without even more nuclear power plants. Cautious questions in editorials in The Washington Post and The New York Times regarding risks and safety standards at American nuclear power plants were a rare exception in the overall reports.

It is worthwhile to take a close look at the strong standing nuclear energy has in the U.S.

The United States is the world’s No. 1 nuclear country. Of the 435 reactors worldwide, 104 are in the United States, providing approximately 20 percent of the nation’s power supply (in comparison to around 27 percent in Germany in 2010). In the United States, the share of nuclear power in the overall energy portfolio may be lower than in Germany, but the nuclear industry’s political clout is greater. One would think the catastrophe in Japan might have taken some of the wind out of its sails. But the nuclear lobby is prepared for all eventualities. Thanks to numerous advertising campaigns and intensive lobbying work in recent years, nuclear power is accepted by the broader public.

(Photo by Björn Freiberg,  CC BY 2.0)

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