With memories of the Fukushima disaster still fresh in the minds of citizens and lawmakers, Germany has set off on the road to a non-nuclear future. Immediately following the disastrous events of last March, Germany acted swiftly to shut down the eight oldest of its 17 nuclear reactors, followed, three months later, by plans to disconnect the remaining nine by the year 2022. While Germany is a leading producer of renewable energy, accounting for 17% of its electricity output, the country’s recently published energy plan still includes the creation of 23 gigawatts of gas- and coal-powered plants by 2020 to make up for the loss of nuclear power. This will lead to a, marginal, increase in the cost of electricity for consumers but, more significantly, a drastic rise in the amount of harmful greenhouse gases resulting from the production of energy.

Germany is not alone in questioning the safety and continued practicality of nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima incident. Citizens and governments all over the world are reconsidering their energy plans in light of the ever present risk of catastrophic meltdown posed by nuclear plants.  Japan itself has become the latest country to take a decisive step towards overhauling its energy supply to one which favors renewable sources over the risks of nuclear power or the environmental hazards of coal and gas.  Japan passed, on August 26th, 2011, legislation which aims to considerably increase spending on solar, wind and other green energy.

This renewed opposition to nuclear power poses a question of equally pressing concern; if nuclear power is rejected, what will replace it? Although renewable, green energy will certainly prove to be the most environmentally favorable solution in the long run, the reality is that renewable energy is still altogether too limited to meet global demand. As the situation in Germany has shown, the outright dismissal of nuclear power will, inevitably, lead to a renewed commitment to the gas- and coal-powered plants of old.  Balancing these considerations of sustainability, which limit the use extent to which gas- and coal-powered plants can be implemented, with the pressing safety concerns of nuclear power, will continue to be one of the primary issues in energy policy and low-carbon development for the foreseeable future.

Several different approaches to this vexing problem are currently being implemented in cities around the world.  One such approach is that employed by the German government which, in addition to the creation of new gas- and coal-powered plants, has turned to energy suppliers in the neighboring countries to make up for its shortfall.  In the long run, Germany hopes to reduce the total amount of energy consumed by, among other measures, improving the energy efficiency of households and other buildings.  A second approach, one which is also being employed in Germany’s efforts as well as in the United States, is that of making the old coal-powered plants more sustainable by reducing their emissions levels.

Recent regulations proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aim to make a marked reduction of the harmful emissions produced by American coal-fired power plants.  The EPA’s proposed regulations, along with similar measures being planned in Germany, while significantly improving the environmental sustainability of these coal plants, would still fall short of raising coal-fired power to the level of green energy.  Furthermore, such regulations will undoubtedly lead to the shuttering of a number of older coal-powered plants as the cost of renovating them to meet new requirements would prove prohibitive, as evidenced by industry predictions which suggest that the new EPA regulations will lead to the closing of up to 20% of the nation’s coal-power plants.

While the approaches being applied by the governments of such countries as Germany, Japan and the United States are certainly admirable in their aims, these measures will prove insignificant to transform the energy plans of countries such as the United States who still rely on coal- and gas-powered plants for a majority of their energy needs.  The German government’s active support and funding of the ongoing research and development of renewable energy sources does, nevertheless, provide a hopeful glimmer of possibility for the attainability of a sustainable, low-carbon future powered with renewably sourced energy.

Read More:
NY Times article on Germany's nuclear-free future
Reuters report on Japan's new legislation
Financial Times article on the negative impact of new EPA regulations (Registration required)
UPI report on new EPA regulations