Freakonomics Features BTI on Future of Nuclear Power

Yesterday, Freakonomics featured the Breakthrough Institute on a panel of experts debating the myriad of questions surrounding the costs of Japan and Germany's recent decisions to turn away from nuclear power. The Freakonomics Quorum posed the following question:

With Japan deciding not to expand its nuclear power base, and Germany and Switzerland vowing to phase out nuclear power altogether, how will those (and other) countries replace that electricity, and what sort of political, economic, and environmental trickle-down effects will we see?

The Breakthrough Institute's response is appended below. The Freakonomics Quorum and full participant responses can be viewed here.

In the months following the tsunami-triggered nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power station, both Japan and Germany announced major U-turns on nuclear policy. In separate, politically calculated moves, Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to end Germany's reliance on nuclear power by 2022, while Prime Minister Naoto Kan scrapped plans to ramp up nuclear generation to 50 percent of Japan's power supply in the coming decades, each while reaffirming already-ambitious climate change goals.

The reality, however, is that turning their backs on nuclear power could push both nations' climate and environmental objectives out of reach. Simultaneously achieving both a nuclear phase-out and deep emissions cuts would necessitate an unprecedented - and unlikely - scale-up of renewable energy generation to fill the void left by the German and Japanese nuclear fleets.

Consider Germany first. After a drumming by an ascendant Green Party in recent regional elections, Merkel's ruling party has vowed to increase renewable energy generation to 35 percent of the nation's electricity supply, up from about 17 percent today, as part of new plans to forgo planned life extensions of their aging nuclear fleet and shut down all currently operating plants by 2022. It's not complicated to see, however, that an 18 percentage point increase in renewable energy's market share falls well short of fully replacing Germany's nuclear power fleet, which now provides about a quarter of the nation's power supply.

More importantly, our analysis finds that hitting the off switch on nuclear makes Germany's climate change objectives twice as difficult. Cutting German carbon dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as the nation has long-committed, while simultaneously replacing the nation's nuclear fleet would require renewable energy to provide more than 60 percent of Germany's electricity supply in just a decades' time--a roughly four-fold increase in the electricity derived from non-hydro renewables, like wind and solar power.

For now, Germany is actually digging itself an even deeper hole. The nation is in the process of building ten new coal-fired power plants totaling more than 11,000 MW of capacity, which if completed, would emit as much as 69.4 million tons of carbon dioxide annually--over a quarter of the German electricity sector's total 2008 emissions.

All this makes it difficult to square Germany's avowed plans with the hard math and real actions on the ground.

In Japan, the picture may be even bleaker, owing to the island nation's dearth of domestic energy resources and heavy historic reliance on nuclear power. In May, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced the country would cancel prior plans to scale up nuclear power to meet 50 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030, up from roughly 30 percent today. When added to the 38 existing Japanese nuclear plants that are scheduled to shut down by 2030 without a permit extension, Japan's new nuclear plans leave a sizable gap that must be filled by other power sources.

Japan has few good options. According to our analysis, filling the nuclear gap would require an almost 50-fold increase in the electricity provided by wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources by 2030--and that assumes Japan continues to operate 21 existing power stations that will still be licensed to run in 2030, providing 15 percent of Japan's projected power demand. Completely turning its back on nuclear would be almost inconceivable to Japan, despite the ongoing nuclear crisis there.

Regardless, simply replacing the generation gap left by Prime Minister Kan's decision could entail immense economic costs: roughly $688 billion in construction costs if solar power filled the nuclear void, and somewhere on the order of $334 billion if met entirely with new wind parks. Japan has enough geothermal potential to displace about a third of the planned nuclear expansion at a fairly economical cost, but has been reluctant to develop such resources for fear of jeopardizing centuries-old hot springs, long-treasured as tourist destinations and meditative retreats.

If these staggering economic costs and scale requirements make it unlikely for Japan to fill the nuclear void entirely with renewable power sources, fossil energy options have their own costs to the nation's treasured trade surplus and ambitious climate goals. If Japan turns to imported coal or liquefied natural gas (LNG) to replace its nuclear plants, the country's annual CO2 emissions could spike by as much as 15 to 26 percent. Meanwhile, the added energy imports could erode 37 to 58 percent of Japan's current trade surplus.

Germany, who can simply rely on greater imports of nuclear and coal-fired electricity from neighbors like France, Poland, or the Czech Republic, may have the easier time of it. If such a scenario satisfies the letter of Merkel's promises, it would hardly match the spirit of "green" Germany's vision of a nuclear and fossil-free future.

Isolated Japan, meanwhile, finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Given the challenges and costs of scaling renewables and a well-reasoned reluctance to rely any further on fossil fuel imports, nuclear power once seemed the ideal energy source for the island nation. Now, Japan has run out of easy options.