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Science & the Public

Nuclear energy: As Germany goes…

This and other economic powerhouses are looking to green their energy portfolios.

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The German government surprised many energy analysts May 30, with its pledge to phase out use of nuclear power. The decision was triggered, at least in part, on witnessing local reaction to Japan’s economic meltdown in the wake of its Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, earlier this year. But what makes the German announcement particularly noteworthy is that Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is not offering to walk away from a bit player. Nuclear power currently supplies almost one-quarter of that nation’s electrical energy — more than its share in the United States.

Until now, Germany had pledged to remain invested in nuclear energy as a means of managing its greenhouse-gas emissions. Regarding this new course correction, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told reporters earlier this week: "It's definite: The latest end of the last three nuclear power plants is 2022. There will be no cause for revision."

By backing out of nuclear, that nation must increase its reliance — at least in the near term — on electricity generated by greenhouse-gas-spewing fossil fuels. Over the extended period, however, Germany plans to transition heavily into greener alternatives.

And I have little doubt about this European power’s commitment to green its energy portfolio.

Every time I fly over northern Germany, I see a checkerboard of farm fields dotted with ever more wind turbines. Drive to the North Sea and it’s hard to ignore a coastline littered with wind turbines. In Europe’s initial competition to identify its green capital, Hamburg took first place. So committed was this industrial port city/state to transforming its rust-belt image that it has even designed parklands to blanket superhighways. Elsewhere around the country, rooftop solar collectors are beginning to festoon homes, businesses — even barns.

I only wish I saw a similar commitment at home to embrace the inevitable. Fossil-fuel use is dirty, seeds the air with heart- and lung-damaging pollutants, and is fostering global change. Whether Americans choose to continue their love-hate relationship with nuclear energy, they should begin investing far more seriously in alternatives — because other world economic powerhouses are. China is. India is. You can bet Japan will be doing so as soon as it can scrape together a few yen to do so. And Germany has announced plans for a gung-ho development of additional clean-energy technologies.

Sooner or later, the United States will have to abandon its near total reliance on dirty fuels. I’m hoping that when it does, it will buy into the most effective technologies and that most will be American-made. I worry, however, that the United States will again prove itself a research leader — but development and manufacturing laggard. One environment that won’t benefit is our economy.

Citations

A. Bowen. German government plans total nuclear shutdown by 2022. Deutsche Welle. May 30, 2011. [Go to]
Further Reading

M. Levi. Japan crisis may have little effect on U.S. energy policy. Science News, Vol. 179, April 9, 2011, p. 32. Available to subscribers: [Go to]

J. Raloff and A. Witze. Natural catastrophe begets nuclear crisis. Science News, Vol. 179, April 9, 2011, p. 5. Available to subscribers: [Go to]

J. Raloff. Radiation: Japan's third crisis. Science News blog, March 16, 2011. [Go to]

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