February 17, 2023
◼ Nuclear revival? No way towards the future
Nuclear energy in Austria? In this context, most people think of Zwentendorf and the citizens’ initiatives to prevent nuclear power. But: Austria is not an island and radioactivity concerns us all.
In course of the energy crisis, the federal government in Germany decided to extend the service life of the three nuclear power plants (NPP), that are still connected to the grid, until spring 2023. In summer, the EU Commission in Brussels declared nuclear power to be sustainable with the green label, despite massive criticism. France has always heavily relied on nuclear power. And even Japan, which wanted to quit nuclear energy after Fukushima in 2011, has now changed its mind. The only question is: Are these decisions future-oriented?
In view of the risks and the unresolved question of the final disposal of highly radioactive fuel elements, the question must be raised, whether the revival of nuclear energy is not just a short-lived reflection of the energy crisis and the associated explosion in costs?
The rise of and fall of nuclear energy: a brief review
Since the 1960s, more and more nuclear power plants supplied the grid. The energy-supplying principle of nuclear fission was known at least since the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, but likewise were the devastating consequences of radioactive radiation for people and the environment.
For decades, nuclear power plants supplied supposedly cheap electricity. But there is an immense risk involved when nuclear fission takes place in the reactor core. This became clear in 1986 in Chernobyl and in 2011 in Fukushima, with massive radioactive contamination in both cases. The fact that there are no nuclear power plants in Austria is little consolation.
In Germany, the end of nuclear power was proclaimed with the energy transition, but today it is evident that our neighbouring country is pretty much alone with this aim. Nuclear power plants are celebrating a revival in many countries around the world.
It doesn't take an explosion or a meltdown to show the risks of nuclear energy: the problem of final storage is an issue worldwide that has not been solved yet. Used fuel elements represent a danger for tens of thousands of years, even after the last nuclear power plant has been taken off the grid. Who would seriously consider this as a sustainable solution for the supply of energy?
Do we need a nuclear revival?
A look at the key facts clearly shows: We do not need nuclear power! The sun delivers that much energy per hour (!) that it could supply our planet with green electricity for a whole year. Solar energy is always available for free. So far, however, there has been a lack of political initiative on a global level to initiate a real and thus sustainable energy transition.
In Germany, the end of nuclear power plants is a logical step towards the future: in 2022, the proportion of solar power was already almost 11%, i.e. significantly higher than the output of the remaining nuclear power plants. An expansion target of 9 gigawatts for new photovoltaic systems has been announced for 2023. The forecasts also look good for Austria.
With the right political framework (worldwide!), the expansion can be significantly accelerated. Don't just think of Austria or Europe: Huge solar power plants could also be built in deserts, which would ensure an important contribution to the energy supply around the world. Or we first fill our roofs, which already cover a huge area and could thus make an enormous contribution to the energy supply.
Nuclear power vs. photovoltaics: Where does the journey lead to?
There is no danger from photovoltaic systems on the roof: Solar energy is always available free of charge. High efficiencies levels of modern solar modules ensure impressive performance even in winter. At the moment there is a lack of storage capacity to ensure a stable network, even on grey days. Significant progress can be made here in the next years. In view of skyrocketing electricity costs, it has never been more advantageous for companies and households to invest in photovoltaics. With your own green electricity, price increases can be avoided and your own needs can be covered to a large extent.
However, there is still a lack of extensive safety measures for nuclear energy. Essentially, the revival consists of letting old power plants from the 1980s continue to run. Although new types of nuclear power plants are being planned, it will take years for them to run.
In a government statement in June 2011, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel (a doctor of physics!) stated: "In Fukushima we had to acknowledge that even in a high-tech country like Japan, the risks of nuclear energy cannot be safely controlled." Despite safety measures, a residual risk can never be ruled out, and even new types of nuclear power plants cannot solve the final storage of nuclear waste. Earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks and the consequences of climate change will not make it possible to operate a nuclear power plant 100% safely. Even several independent safety systems in the cooling circuit of a reactor are of no use if rivers no longer supply sufficient cooling water due to environmental factors. In this respect, the question must be asked as to how economic operation of nuclear energy can continue to be possible, in view of the boom of solar energy?
Future vision: fusion instead of nuclear fission
As mentioned in the introduction, the energy potential of the sun is huge. We just have to finally exploit it consistently. So far, this has only happened in a very limited form worldwide. Turning away from nuclear energy seems logical, because the sun itself shows us a risk-free form of energy production in its interior with nuclear fusion. Recently, research teams have made people sit up and take notice, and there are also start-ups in Austria that want to design nuclear energy differently based on thorium reactors. However, according to experts, it will probably be decades before fusion reactors can supply enormous amounts of electricity. And the use of thorium also has a few points of criticism, which lie in the details, despite all the advantages.
Until these ideas and concepts are ready for the market, the sun can supply us with sufficient green and emission-free electricity.
Conclusion: The future of power supply is renewable
In view of the risks and the currently very cheap solar power, there is no future-oriented alternative to the expansion of wind power and photovoltaics. Above all, courageous political decisions are required to create the right framework conditions. Due to the expansion of storage capacities, solar energy will be able to make a very large contribution to security of supply in a few years.