A Leap of Faith? Divergent EU and U.S. Choices on Nuclear Power
WASHINGTON -- Germany’s decision last week to phase out nuclear power has sharpened the differences between Europe and the United States on energy policy. Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, a senior voice on energy policy in the U.S. Congress, led the chorus decrying that removing nuclear power from the energy mix would undermine global efforts to combat climate change because the technology emits much fewer greenhouse gases than coal or natural gas, the other main fuels used to generate electricity. The decision highlights an apparent contradiction: Europe is committing itself to a low-carbon future while it moves away from nuclear power, whereas the United States, a laggard on climate action, insists that nuclear power is essential to avoid climate change.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to the crippling of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan by immediately ordering the temporary closure of seven older nuclear power plants. She has since expanded what appeared to be a panicky sop to public opinion into a revised energy policy that will see all nuclear power stations in Germany closed by 2022.
In reality, the decision is a return to the status quo ante -- a decision to phase out nuclear power by 2021 was adopted in 2001 by the then-coalition government of the Green Party and the Social Democrats. Merkel’s government went against the grain of public opinion (and the well-known views of her own environment minister, Norbert Röttgen) last September by prolonging the life of many of Germany’s existing nuclear power stations for up to 14 years. What many forget is that her about-turn brings her, and her Christian Democratic Union, into Europe’s political mainstream on this issue. The German public has largely opposed nuclear power since fallout from Chernobyl reached the country in 1986. And the trend across Europe is against nuclear power, notwithstanding official support in a minority of countries (France and the United Kingdom being foremost among them). At the same time, the EU is solidifying its plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050.
So if Senator Bingaman is right, and nuclear power is an essential part of the low-carbon future, why is one of the most pro-climate action countries in the world, one with a big industrial sector and heavy energy needs, ready to foresake it? The short-term answer is that it will make no difference. Germany’s emissions may rise as the country turns to power generated from burning fossil fuels, some of it imported from other EU countries. But greenhouse gas emissions from the EU’s power sector as a whole will not rise because they are limited by the EU Emissions Trading System, which sets a declining annual cap. The flexibility that allows one country’s emissions to rise while reducing the emissions of the EU region as a whole is one of the clever design features of the EU’s flagship climate policy. Germany’s decision could drive up the price of emission permits, but there is so much oversupply in the market already (the 2009 recession has meant that EU emissions are still down more than projected) that the impact on prices will be modest.
The longer-term answer highlights the differences between EU and U.S. ambitions and constraints on energy policy. Merkel’s justification — that the decision would make Germany “the first major industrialized country that achieves the transition to renewable energy” — is a bet on the ability of governments to force technological change. Germany hopes that the decision will send a market signal sufficiently strong to attract enough investments to make renewable energy technologies competitive. This might make sense. Innovation is essential to drive down costs, but it is often forgotten that costs begin to fall only when technologies are deployed at scale. The German feed-in tariff provides a recent example. It removed the risk of investing in renewable energy technologies like wind turbines by offering a minimum price for the power they generated; investors rushed to deploy more generating units than expected, and costs fell quickly, although they are still higher than fossil-fuel energy in most cases. The promise of the big German market for renewable energy could help new technologies pass from the design phase to market acceptance. Removing nuclear power from the options further strengthens the signal to the private sector to invest in renewables.
The United States is much less likely to forsake nuclear power. Nuclear power will be an essential part of any political deal on climate and energy policy in the United States. Unlike in Europe, there is still generally strong support among the American public for nuclear power. This fact, coupled with the strength of the nuclear lobby and the precariousness of any political coalition that could muster the votes to pass a climate bill, means that nuclear power will be part of that coalition.
Europe, led by Germany, seems to be choosing a political future around the promise of renewable energy and hopes to push innovation in that direction; it sees nuclear power as a distraction from that goal. The United States, for reasons of domestic political economy as much as faith in the technology, will not make a similar choice.
Thomas Legge is Senior Program Officer in the German Marshall Fund’s Climate & Energy Program.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.