Nuclear – The energy of the past?

Nathan writes*

During the early development of civilian nuclear power, everything was promised. It would deliver cheap and abundant electricity to society, ending reliance on fossil fuels and eliminating pollution. Nuclear power, especially fusion (always 20 years away), was seen as the energy of the future and would even become too cheap to meter. Though this was always more hype than fact, the rapid build-up of nuclear power in France following the oil shock of 1973, delivered much on these promises. After OPEC quadrupled the price of oil effectively overnight, France embarked on the Messmer Plan to end its dependence on imported fuel. In 15 years, 48 reactors were deployed at 12 different plants around the country and by 1980, France had overtaken Germany. Though the plan originally called for 170 reactors to be built by 2000, three quarters of the electricity generation in France was already coming from only 50 reactors. Despite efforts by the EDF to stimulate demand, the expected increase failed to materialise, and supply had already surpassed it. As result, France’s nuclear plants operated only at around 60% capacity, something still common today in the summer, when demand is at its lowest.

Though important opposition to the plan had emerged in France, in Germany, where investment had been slower and capacity had lagged, support for a different type of energy system was rising. The movement for an ‘energiewende’ or energy transition, had already gained support after the oil shock and was inherently sceptical of nuclear power. Germany’s relatively decentralised federal system also made local protests against proposed plants more effective. As a result, by the time of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the country was far from committed to nuclear power. Being far closer than France and more directly affected by the radiation spread west by the wind, Germany’s nuclear program effectively ended that year. Increasing backlash in France, particularly after Chernobyl, contributed to slowing investment in the 1990s. However, this was largely a result of the program’s own success, fossil fuels had already been almost eliminated from electricity production. More importantly, electricity use, and later, total energy use, had peaked in both countries.

The fate of Germany’s nuclear industry — in limbo since Chernobyl — was sealed by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster. It convinced even Angela Merkel, previously a supporter of nuclear power, to finally phase out German nuclear electricity by 2022. This accompanied significant investment into renewable energy sources, particularly wind, but also resulted in delaying significantly any possible phase out of fossil fuels, particularly coal and gas, pushing it to depend increasingly on imports from Russia.

In the meantime, in France, discussion was also swinging in favour of a phase out. The 2012 presidential election saw Holland, the eventual winner, support a partial move away from nuclear, aiming to lower its share to half electrical production by 2025, though it was never fully implemented. By 2020, France’s nuclear industry was badly in need of reinvestment: its youngest reactor was 18 years old and the average reactor was older than 34. The two decades of underinvestment seemed to finally come to a head in 2023, just as Germany, to the exasperation of some, finally closed its last reactor: in the midst of a painful energy crisis in Europe, as many as 26 of France’s aging reactors were force to shut down.

* Please help my Real Donut Economics** students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

** Why “Real”? In short, because (a) Raworth’s claims to being a “21st century economist” denies that all of her ideas were presented by others in the 20th century and (b) she presents no viable mechanisms (besides “be nice”) for achieving equality and sustainability. My students are more realistic. In long? Read this.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Nuclear – The energy of the past?”

  1. Hi Nathan, your blog post was very insightful! I liked the comparison between the nuclear power development of France and Germany. You explained nicely how it impacted their energy mixes. You mentioned that the movement for the energy transition in Germany was “inherently sceptical of nuclear power”. It would be interesting to detail the reasons behind that scepticism in your essay and bring up the debate on the status of nuclear energy. I liked that you linked your topic with the energy crisis in Europe. It made me wonder: what impacts did nuclear power (dis)investments have on energy prices in France and Germany (today and in the past)? Looking at energy prices might be relevant in your essay. I am looking forward to hearing more about your topic in your presentation!

    1. Thanks for the comment! The Energiewende movement started in 1980 before the consensus we see today existed around global warming. There were even still scientists arguing for Global Cooling in the late 70s, though they represented a minority. The movement was therefore more opposed to the highly centralised, non-renewable, and continual growth aspects of the energy system in Germany. This implied equal opposition to both fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

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