Monday, September 28, 2009

After Nuclear Twilight, Germany's New Day

I've heard it described as one of the most boring and bland elections of the twenty-first century. Yesterday, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel won a second term and fresh mandate from the German people, and in cooperation with the Free Democratic Party will form a majority government. Previously, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union ruled with the support of the Social Democratic Party, but with the SPD down seventy-six seats, things have changed. In particular, now that the SPD is out of the equation, it appears that the German government will re-evaluate the controversial plan to decommission Germany's nuclear generating capacity.

At its height, nineteen nuclear power plants operated in Germany, although like much of the rest of the world the majority of its power is derived from coal-burning power plants, and nuclear's share of the electrical pie has been roughly stable since the mid-1980s. In 2000, despite a 1997 opinion poll which indicated 81% of the German population supported nuclear power, a coalition government of the SPD and the Greens announced that all nuclear power in Germany would be phased out by 2020.

I thought it was ridiculous then, and I still think it's ridiculous. Personally, I'd go so far to say that in the current climate, with the looming threat of climate change never so well known, holding on to a policy like this is evil. It wouldn't be the first time an evil act was committed by people who honestly believed they were doing a good thing.

Of Germany's nineteen nuclear plants in 2000, two have already been shut down. Controversy arose after the closure of the 672-megawatt Stade Nuclear Power Plant in 2003, with the German news site Tageblatt Online reporting on environmentalists opposing the construction of an 800-megawatt coal power plant to replace it. The BUND Kreisgruppe, an environmental organization active in Germany, called for the construction of what appear to be natural gas power plants - Google's translation is not exact - which would generate only half the emissions of a coal-fired power plant.

This is, obviously, far superior environmentally when compared to a nuclear power plant which produces exactly zero emissions.

The problem with modern environmentalism is that its wagon has been hitched to the anti-nuclear movement for quite a few decades, and as such it's at war with itself and with reality. Environmentalist campaigners talk about the need to introduce further renewables into the generation infrastructure, but a modern civilization cannot be fueled by solar and wind alone. There has to be a source of baseload power generation, and unless you're lucky enough to be near a good set of waterfalls or a geothermal zone, only coal and nuclear can effectively provide that. I couldn't consider myself an environmentalist living somewhere other than Ontario; fifty percent of this province's power is nuclear-generated, and much of the rest comes from hydroelectricity, clean and carbon dioxide-free.

It seems to me that a lot of these dedicated environmentalists have not caught up with today's reality. They're still fighting the crusades of the 1970s, still seeing nuclear power in the same jaundiced light cast by the threat of the Cold War. It's well past time for us to leave behind China Syndrome scaremongering, for us to look at nuclear power with eyes unclouded by Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. How many people do you think die every year in coal mine accidents, or from the pollutants spewed into the atmosphere by coal power plants all over the world?

Coal burning is representative of modern industrial barbarism. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to move away from it as soon as possible. Bravo to the new German government for readying itself to go down that road again.

Pickering Nuclear Generating Station - may it bring the light for decades to come

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