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Are the German and Swiss exits of nuclear power an example to follow in Europe?

Posted by Laurence Daziano at 28 June 2017, 14:00 CET |
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In a referendum held last month, the Swiss have approved a new energy law that aims to replace nuclear power with renewable energies. After Germany and Italy, a third European country, using nuclear energy, decides to embark on a nuclear energy policy.

Switzerland is therefore embarking on an energy policy, which has two characteristics in common with that implemented by Berlin and Rome. In the first place, Bern promotes this initiative through the development of renewable energies, such as hydropower, solar energy, geothermal energy and biomass, while nuclear energy represents one third of the energy produced in Switzerland. Secondly, this choice is largely a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident, which not only halted nuclear energy in developed countries, but also accelerated the withdrawal of nuclear power by some countries.

However, it is necessary to take a closer look at the Swiss energy strategy, as well as to consider the costs of leaving nuclear power in order to have an overview. First of all, Bern has adopted an overall energy strategy that runs until 2050. The first part of this strategy aims to reduce energy consumption. The bill also prohibits the construction of new nuclear power plants, but existing power plants will remain in service as long as their safety is guaranteed. It is therefore not a "hard" exit from nuclear power. Finally, the central question of the cost of the exit of the Swiss nuclear power was not addressed during the election campaign. Some analyzes show a cost of around 200 billion Swiss francs (183 billion euro) up to 2050. These estimates are inherently flawed and the Swiss government itself has acknowledged that the energy transition would mean an additional cost for the Swiss people.

The energy transition, which is now taking place in Switzerland, must also be analyzed in the light of the German example. In 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the phasing out of nuclear power by 2022. However, for a country much more significant size than Switzerland, both in terms of population and industrial facilities, this choice has undoubtedly had contrary effects in terms of climate with the stability of greenhouse gas emissions because of the increased use of coal as a substitute for nuclear power. This policy is contradictory to the German climate targets, which are the most ambitious of all the major industrialized countries, which envisage a reduction of 80 to 95% of emissions by 2050 compared to 1990. The annual rate of emissions from 1% to 3% since 1990 has fallen to less than 1% (on average) since 2011, and seriously undermines the 40% reduction target by 2020.

Indeed, the final closure in 2011 of eight of the sixteen German nuclear reactors mechanically deprived the country of 8.3 GW of production capacity, as the rise of renewable energies (from 20% to 29.5% of the electricity mix between 2011 and 2016) has not been fully met. Beyond climate issues, the large share of coal in Germany is also criticized for its impact on air pollution caused by fine-particle emissions. A study, published on 5 July 2016 by four NGOs (Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, WWF, Health and Environment Alliance (Heal) and Sandbag), says coal-fired power plants cause 23,000 premature deaths each year.

On the other hand, the question of a major use of renewable energies raises several important challenges. The difficulty of storing energy, despite the progress being made on the batteries, makes it necessary to have another source of energy produced continuously. If this energy is of gas origin, it increases the European energy dependence, while the coal increases CO2 emissions. Regarding offshore wind, in addition to issues related to the difficulty of maintaining a fleet, the absence of carbon dioxide emissions from these facilities does not mean that they are harmless to the environment. The effects on the marine ecosystem of the functioning of a large number of sites in maritime space have not yet been studied. Another challenge is the continuous availability of energy, especially during extreme climatic events in winter, when there is no sun or wind, or in summer when there is no longer enough water for hydroelectric dams. Renewable energies must then find a substitute, for example nuclear energy whose production is little influenced by the weather.

Finally, the German and Swiss examples do not answer a major question, namely the cost of a total discharge of nuclear energy, and in particular an accelerated exit. The German Ministry of Finance and Energy, responsible for the energy transition, was not able to answer the question of the German Court of Auditors on the total cost of energy transition for the State. According to the German Federal Court of Auditors, the additional cost associated with the renewable energy subsidy policy would be EUR 24 billion in 2016. During the period 2010-2017, the kilowatt price would have increased by about 20% from 23, 69 cents / kilowatt to 29.16 cents / kilowatt.

All in all, the question of a nuclear power outage is obviously costly as this energy is important in the national energy mix, as in France, the United Kingdom or Eastern Europe. The issue today in Europe is more about a decarbonised energy mix, which respects international climate commitments and offers the necessary guarantees for energy independence for Europe, than a dogmatic exit from nuclear power to an unrealistic horizon.

Laurence Daziano is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Sciences Po and a member of the scientific council of the Foundation for Political Innovation (Paris).

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Laurence Daziano

Laurence Daziano

Laurence Daziano, Senior Lecturer in Economics at Sciences Po Paris, is a member of the Scientific Council of the Foundation for Political Innovation.