February 07, 2009
Sweden Might Flip Back Toward Support Of Nuclear Power

In 1980 Sweden passed a referendum to gradually phase out nuclear power. Germany eventually followed suit. But now it looks like Sweden is going to flip back toward an embrace of new nukes.

On Thursday, the country once again took a step into the future -- by abandoning the ban on new nuclear power plants. Stockholm said the move was necessary to avoid energy sources that produce vast quantities of greenhouse gases. While Sweden has been a leader in developing alternative energy sources, they still have not done enough to completely replace nuclear power, which supplies half the country's energy.

The new proposal, presented by the country's center-right coalition, calls for the construction of new reactors as the old ones are taken out of service. Parliament will vote on the bill on March 17. The package also calls for the expansion of wind power and for a 40 percent cut to greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 relative to 1990 levels.

The Der Spiegel article reports that while the majority of Germans still favor a phase-out of nuclear power support for nukes is growing rapidly. While 36% opposed the phase-out in December 2007 just 8 months later opposition to the phase-out (i.e. support for nukes) had grown to 44%.

An earlier March 2008 Der Spiegel article reports that lots of coal electric plants are on the drawing board in Germany.

The Vattenfall project in Berlin is only one example of a larger trend. Utility companies want to set up a total of 26 new coal-fired power plants in Germany during the coming years.

In the long term, the power plants will replace older, dirtier plants. But that doesn't alter the fact that the plans are a direct contradiction of the climate goals formulated by Merkel. While emissions are practically zero in the case of nuclear energy, and while a natural gas-fired plant produces just 428 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour, a black coal power plant churns a solid 949 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere. The figure for lignite or brown coal -- 1,153 grams -- is even worse.

Some argue for coal with carbon capture as an alternative to nuclear power. But a BBC reporter at a carbon capture demonstration plant in Germany says carbon capture might boost coal electric costs by 50%. This is in line with other reports I've read that claim coal with carbon capture costs more than nuclear power.

Currently Germany gets 27% of domestic energy use from nuclear power. This puts it behind only 3 other nations as measured by percentage of electric power coming from nukes. France is at 77% from nukes, Ukraine is at 48%, and Japan is at 28%. The US is in 5th place at 19% with Russia in 6th place at 16%. Globally 15% of all electric power comes from nukes.

Update: Nuclear power's biggest competitor is coal. Coal is likely to remain in first place for a long time since the countries that are experiencing the greatest demand growth for electricity (e.g. China, India) also oppose international restrictions on their fossil fuels usage.

Coal remains the main fuel for power generation around the world, with a share of over 40%, followed by gas (20%), hydro (16%), nuclear (15%) and then oil (5%). Coal-fired power generation has grown strongly in the past decade, driven by strong growth in non-OECD countries. In China, coal-fired power generation capacity tripled during the past decade. Consequently, electricity output also expanded very rapidly, creating enormous pressures on the global thermal coal market.

Only lower costs for nuclear, wind, and solar can make a big dent in rising Asian coal demand.

Update In another recent article on nuclear power Der Spiegel argues Germany has a choice between keeping nuclear power around or building more coal electric plants.

Despite a decade of massive investment and generous programs established to promote wind, solar and biomass power generation, green energy sources make up just 14 percent of the country's energy supply. Even if that were to double in the near future, the lion's share of Germany's energy consumption would have to come from elsewhere. Without nuclear power, "elsewhere" in Germany necessarily means coal-fired power plants. But in a world with a rapidly warming climate caused by massive emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere by, among other sources, coal-fired power plants, such a scenario is decidedly unappetizing.

Nuclear power provides a real test of the seriousness of those who want to cut carbon emissions. They face 3 choices: 1) Build coal electric plants or 2) Drastically raise electricity prices while slashing consumption; or 3) Build more nuclear power plants.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 February 07 08:24 PM  Energy Nuclear

JL said at February 7, 2009 10:32 PM:

"This puts it behind only 3 other nations as measured by percentage of electric power coming from nukes. France is at 77% from nukes, Ukraine is at 48%, and Japan is at 28%."

Not true. Sweden is at 47.6%, Finland at 28.4%. It's been clear for a long time that the Swedes were not going to make good on their promise to phase out nukes.

K said at February 8, 2009 1:15 AM:

Notice the countries using a lot of nuclear power are mostly at high latitudes.

Norway and Canada have a good supply of NG and oil and hydro. Otherwise I suspect they would rank high too. Russia built a lot of nukes, including those in Ukraine, for political purposes; neither nation was short on coal.

Importing your energy as fossil fuel is OK. Paying for those imports politically and financially isn't. Sounds as if Sweden is facing the facts.

jay said at February 8, 2009 7:08 AM:

all the europeans are scared of putin. they may say greenhouse gas but they are thinking about the kgb thug.

RD said at February 8, 2009 1:23 PM:

Nuclear power has to be an important part of the energy mix. We need to build more nuclear plants in the U.S. to attain energy independence and slow global warming.

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