A Green Pyrrhic Victory
China leads a global renaissance of nuclear power. Too bad that Germany killed off its nuclear industry.
Nuclear power is undergoing a global renaissance. In September, the British government approved construction of the first nuclear plant in decades. Thirteen other European Union countries are planning new reactors. Around the globe, the World Nuclear Association lists 59 reactors under construction and another 160 planned, enough to raise global nuclear generating capacity by 60 percent.
The boom is driven by the world’s hunger for energy and the need to find cleaner alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels. New technology is on its way as well. In the U.S. and Canada, billionaire investors like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have backed start-ups developing next-generation nukes.
But no country is pressing ahead as hard and fast as China. Over the next 10 years, China alone plans to build 60 new reactors. Beijing needs to supply its energy-hungry economy while at the same time curbing toxic pollution, thus concluding that there is no alternative to nuclear energy in the foreseeable future. Even with those 60 new plants, nuclear power will only supply 10 percent of China’s electricity, compared to around 20 percent in the United States and over 70 percent in France. So there is a lot more room for growth.
Alas, all this construction and new technology is now lost to Germany, once home to one of the world’s strongest nuclear industries — one which also had the world’s best safety record. Instead, the future of nu- clear energy will be decided in China. Already, Chinese companies have moved beyond building their own country’s plants. China is also involved in financing, constructing and operating power plants elsewhere around the world. The first new British plant, worth $24 billion, will be built by a Franco-Chinese consortium.
That German companies no longer play a role in the industry is loss enough — in revenues, jobs and expertise. It’s also a bitter irony that Germans no longer have any say in setting nuclear safety standards. After all, it was the fear of safety risks that led to a nationwide panic in Germany after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, and to Angela Merkel’s snap decision to phase out nuclear power. China, with its priority to grow at all costs, may weigh safety risks differently, and have less ability to enforce its standards. Some of our European neighbors, too, regard safety measures superfluous that in Germany would be considered essential.
To their credit, German anti-nuclear protestors helped ensure that our safety standards became so tough. (Credit for safe nuclear power also goes to German engineers.) Though there is a nascent protest movement in China, it’s unlikely that Chinese activists will be able to exert the same kind of power. If Germany were still a technology leader and global contractor, we would today have the power to help set safety standards – even in China. In pushing Germany over the edge and out of nuclear power, the German Green movement’s greatest triumph may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory.