Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Energy Twins

By Simon Grose

If two of the world’s biggest economies are any guide, the energy future will not be clean.

Germany and Japan were in the same boat as imperialist warmongers in the 1930s. A century later they look set to be pushing through the waters of the mid-21st century without nuclear propulsion.

Both first connected a nuclear power station to their national grids in 1966, and have displayed a similar symmetry in plans to disconnect their last. The Japanese government’s decision in September to phase out its 50 nuclear power reactors by 2040 came a little over a year after the German government announced a decision to close eight reactors immediately and its remaining nine by 2022. If these plans are fulfilled, they will be abandoning a technology that has provided Germany with a peak of around 25% of its electricity and Japan with around 30%.

Both rank high among the world’s most technologically adept and scientifically sophisticated countries and both require hefty baseload power to drive their industrialised economies. So it should be expected that they are implementing deliberate and coherent national energy strategies.

Heck no. Both are reactive political decisions – Japan’s in response to public opinion following the Fukushima disaster, Germany’s due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s need to win the support of minor parties to form a coalition government.

So their energy strategists have to scramble to find ways to keep the lights on and the factories running. Unfortunately, neither plans to fully replace their nuclear capacity without burning fossil fuels.

Germany fired up a new 2200 MW coal-fired power station in August, and has others under construction totalling five times that capacity, plus gas-fired stations totalling around 1700 MW. Because Germany has large reserves of cheap coal and the price of European Union carbon permits is low, coal-fired stations are more profitable than those fired by more expensive gas that is mainly imported from Russia.

Gas is the mainstay of Japan’s future plans, imported mainly from the fracking fields of Australia, the US and Canada, the offshore fields of WA, and the Persian Gulf.

If both countries follow their nuclear shutdown timetables they will be burning more fossil fuels into the future than they are now. Although some of the resultant emissions may be captured and stored underground or otherwise kept out of the atmosphere, their atmospheric carbon emissions will also rise.

Meanwhile, the nuclear plants they close will be replaced by around 60 currently under construction, led by China (26) and Russia (10), not to mention at least another 100 listed as “proposed” by the World Nuclear Organisation.

So as the world boat chugs through the mid-21st century with an extra couple of billion passengers on board it is likely to be emitting more carbon emissions into its atmosphere and burying more nuclear waste in onshore burrows.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (