Nuclear exit now: The time is ripe

The new respectability of renewable energy creates the impression that a consensus on the energy switchover has been reached. Not true, warns the late Hermann Scheer: the fact is that spending on conventional sources is increasing worldwide. Nowhere is the pseudo-consensus exposed more clearly than in ongoing investment in nuclear power.

The whole world is talking about renewable energy, sympathetically, as if about nice weather. Hardly anyone still disputes that it represents the future of energy supply for humankind. However this shift of perception is only a few years old. The attention that renewables receive worldwide has developed despite the mainstream energy discussion in politics, finance and the media. Today, this resistance seems to have been overcome, albeit in word rather than thought and deed. Opposition to renewable energy has turned into a strategy of appropriation and delay. Grand pledges of commitment to renewables from governments and energy companies prevent a clear picture of the practical priorities. Although energy companies are now investing in renewables, they continue primarily to back conventional energy sources – if possible until the last drop of oil, the last ton of coal or uranium, and the last cubic metre of natural gas.

Nevertheless, it is by now universally recognized that the future of energy supply must rest in renewables. The acknowledgement of their far-reaching potential marks the beginning of the end of the nuclear-fossil worldview. The psychological force of renewable energy sources consists in their being connected to realistic hopes of safe and long-term energy supply. They therefore have a greater social value than nuclear and fossil fuels. That is the crucial point in thinking about energy.

The alternative: Regenerative or nuclear-fossil?

Once one recognizes that renewable energies are not only a supplement to contemporary energy supply but also a realizable and far-reaching alternative, it is practically impossible to reject them. If the switch from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energy sources takes place piecemeal and only gradually, however, then world civilization is likely to embark on a downwards spiral of crisis: dramatic climate alterations threaten to make entire areas of the earth uninhabitable, triggering mass misery and migration movements. Damage limitation will burden societies with greater costs in terms of money and effort than the switch to renewable energies. Shortages of nuclear and fossil fuels and resultant cost inflation are already giving rise to major economic and social upheavals in the industrial nations, and are causing the developing countries to become ever poorer. International conflicts over access to remaining resources threaten to increase, up to and including all out resource wars.

It is above all the problems of nuclear power that remain unsolved and unsolvable: from the constantly growing security dangers of currently operating plants to that of atomic terrorism and the millennial omen of nuclear waste. The enormous water usage of nuclear and fossil fuel power stations is worsening the water crisis in many regions. The health risks of atomic and fossil fuel energy are multiplying, while the contamination of marine biology by crude oil reaches all the way into the food chain.

These simultaneously emergent and mutually exacerbating crises hit societies at their core. They signalize, much more than the recent global financial crisis, the instability of an industrial model of civilization developed on the basis of fossil and nuclear fuels. Both in its capitalist free-market and socialist planned-economy variant, this model has seriously impaired the basis of life. Every year that the comprehensive and complete switch to renewable energies fails to move forwards is therefore a year lost. This change is the ultima ratio, the last possible way to avert existential dangers that might be irreversible. It has ultimate priority because renewable energy is the only possible form of human energy supply that is both sustainable and compatible with nature. The consequences of conventional energy supply force us to act immediately and effectively.

Hollow declarations of commitment to renewable energy say little about the priority given to them in reality, however. “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win,” Ghandi famously said. Which of the phases we currently find ourselves in depends on the country and its level of discussion and development. Over half of the world’s wind-power is generated in only six countries (USA, Germany, China, Denmark, Spain and India). Around half of the world’s networked photovoltaic facilities are located in Germany. Over 80 per cent of installed capacities for solar thermal energy are concentrated in China and the EU.

This shows that in too many countries too many people effectively ignore renewable energy. Some excuse their dithering by saying that the switch to renewable energy will take “a long time” and that it is impossible to demand from business steps that are too large and too quick. Some people genuinely believe this excuse, others use it as a way to win time, in order to continue doing what they have been doing for as long as possible. But because it has been conclusively proven that energy demand can, in principle, be met solely through renewable energy sources, the impression exists that the conflict over renewable energy has subsided and that a broad consensus has been reached – and that all that remains to be settled is the “how” and “when”.

The big contradiction

The supposed consensus over renewable energy distracts from the fact that the real conflicts have only just begun, although the interests have changed. It tempts one to underestimate the conflicts that are inevitably attached to the energy switchover. Although the switchover has more or less begun, the delicate issue remains how, in practical terms, to wind down atomic and fossil-fuel energy sources, entwined as these are with the dominant conditions of production and consumption, the economic order and political institutions. As can be inferred from highly contradictory developments worldwide, this question touches directly upon the existential interests of the conventional energy industry, the largest sector and the most politically influential in the global economy.

On the one hand, there are political initiatives such as those of US president Obama and the Chinese and Indian governments, and even from the oil and gas exporting nations in the Persian Gulf, whose goal is to promote renewable energies. Global companies such as Bosch, General Electric and Siemens have also begun to make renewable energies a strategic priority. Energy companies like the German EON and RWE invest large sums in renewable energies. Automobile manufacturers are equipping themselves to produce electric cars and support the use of renewable energy to do so. Big banks from Wall Street to London and Frankfurt have put together attractive credit portfolios for renewable energy technologies, and investment funds for renewables are sprouting like mushrooms.

On the other hand, one cannot overlook contrary developments that reveal entirely different priorities: worldwide, the majority of investment continues to go into conventional energy. Investment in large-scale conventional power stations and pipelines, sometimes well over the two billion euro mark and with long repayment periods, locks the existing course for the next few decades. President Obama only managed to get his ecological initiatives through Congress after agreeing to continue to fund nuclear energy and to build new coal power stations and wave through controversial permits for new oil drills and pipelines. In China, as in India, the emphasis lies on building new coal power stations. A billion euro wave of funding for CO2 extraction methods in coal power stations is underway – funded are so-called CCS power stations, where CO2 is pushed into the earth. Already, the EU Commission has provided more financial assistance to these technologies than in direct investment in renewable energy. The energy company Shell has again shelved the solar initiative it began in the 1990s and instead announced its support for investment in CCS.

The new nuclear energy boom

Political double standards run through all governments. Nowhere is this more apparent than in nuclear policy. Though Nicolas Sarkozy might have launched more initiatives for renewables than his predecessor, he has been mainly active as an international trade emissary for the nuclear industry, winning contracts for power stations in France. The British government introduced feed-in tariffs following the German model in April 2010, however is also building new nuclear power stations. In April 2010 the Finnish government approved plans to build two new nuclear reactors, even though the greens were in the coalition. Poland is currently planning two new nuclear power stations. The Berlusconi government has announced that Italy will start building nuclear power stations despite the no-voted in a referendum in 1987. In Spring 2010, Russia and Ukraine agreed to pool their nuclear know-how and are planning to double nuclear power energy production within a decade for sale on the international market. At the start of 2010, Abu-Dhabi contracted four nuclear reactors from South Korea, and Vietnam also wants to start producing nuclear energy. Even Brazil – the country that along with Russia, Canada and Australia possesses the most abundant natural potential for renewables – is planning new nuclear power stations. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is calling for 32 nuclear power stations to be built annually until 2050, which would mean a new nuclear power station every 11 days.

This all shows that it’s business as usual with a vengeance: what has been discovered must be funded and sold, even if these energy sources are significantly more expensive than renewables. The global pyromania continues unabated, “drill, drill, drill” the slogan intoned by “big oil” against the environment, which didn’t let up even during the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. The conventional energy sector continues to gamble on the destiny of the Earth, always with the argument that the potential of renewable energies is “currently” insufficient.

Although renewables have become respectable, they cannot be allowed to interfere with conventional energy supplies and must be used solely for additional energy demand. If possible, there should be no substitution of nuclear and fossil-fuel energy! These interests can be seen operating in Germany in the exit from nuclear power and plans for numerous new coal power stations – with generation capacities that suggest that renewable energies can barely be developed any further. Simultaneously, there has been an increase in orchestrated attacks on the law enabling conventional energy to be wound down more quickly in favour of renewables. Academic economists and institutions belong to this choir of appeasers.

The new pseudo-consensus

The new consensus on renewable energies is therefore a pseudo-consensus. Established energy providers aim at co-existence between conventional and renewable energies – with as high a share as possible of conventional energy and the demand that renewable energies be adapted to the structures of conventional energy supply and channelled and limited accordingly.

The basic pattern of the energy conflict has barely altered. Only ostensibly about the pros and cons of renewable energies, at core it has always been about the structures of energy supply and power over it. The emphasis on fossil energy sources and, later, nuclear energy created the system as it exists today. The re-orientation towards renewable energies endangers its structure. That’s why, after first ignoring and then ridiculing the pioneers of alternative energy, the powers-that-be have taken to trying to brake the pace of the energy switch. The traditional energy economy is increasing its efforts to influence political decision-making, the media and public opinion.

In the US, immediately after the election of President Obama, an additional 2000 highly-paid employees of the American energy sector were sent to Washington with the job of undermining the announced energy switchover via targeted lobbying of Congressmen and the media. A lot of money is spent on “greenwashing”, as Toralf Staud describes.1 The number of former ministers taking up management positions in energy companies immediately after leaving office is increasing markedly, as is the number of journalists employed by energy companies as media consultants in order to tend to the image of the sector in the public eye.2 Clearly, despite the sideline in renewables, the core business of conventional energy is being pursued as before.

The real goal: 100 per cent renewable energy

The “new” energy conflict erupts above where renewable energy is already developed to the point at which it can begin to replace conventional energy supplies. The real problem lurking beneath the pseudo-consensus – the nervus rerum of the conflict – is that the system requirements for nuclear and fossil-fuel energy supply are incompatible with those of renewable energies.3 The aim must nevertheless be the complete overhaul of the existing energy system. Aiming only for the partial use of renewables would be unjustifiably self-restricting and result in having to lend political support to the continuation of the conventional system in the long-term future. It would also mean operating over a longish period of time two differing systems of energy supply, which at a certain point would obstruct one another.

No doubt, on the way towards 100 per cent renewable energy it will be necessary to undergo a transition phase where the share of renewable energies rises and that of conventional energy drops, until it is replaced entirely. During this phase it is crucial which system requirements set the standard: the existing energy system or a new one that is adjusted to renewables. Here, a conflict is inevitable that is unique in the history of modern energy supply. On one hand there is the conventional energy system, which has structured the entire energy supply according to its functional requirements, and which all the relevant legislation is tailored towards. On the other hand there is the perspective of a system based entirely on renewables, whose functional requirements are largely divergent to those of conventional energy, and which the rules of the political system have yet to adapt to beyond the very basics.

Between the situation as it is now and the situation as it needs to be, there will be a phase of friction and contradiction. Lets call it a hybrid phase, like the hybrid car that is fitted out with two motors for two different types of fuel. The conventional energy system has the trump of a tried and tested concept and calls for a slow energy switchover that will proceed according to its rules. The trump of renewable energy is not only that in the long term there is no alternative to it, but also that it can be used independently of conventional energy systems and is more popular within society. However at present we are still in a trial and error phase, with a number of competing concepts that are more or less well thought-out and that can therefore easily be played off against each another. Here lies the real problem in carrying out the energy switchover.

In the “hybrid phase”: Old and new fronts

During the “hybrid phase”, constellations as well as protagonists change. For a long time, the fronts between supporters and opponents of alternative energy were clear and easily discernable. On one side were the advocates of alternative energy (even fewer than there are today): organizations for renewable energy, environmental associations and institutes, individual actors in politics, pioneering companies and sympathizers in the media. On the other side was the energy industry and its traditional governmental allies, along with established research institutes and economic associations as well as the majority of industry and business media; this front rejected renewables almost unanimously. These fronts have since partially broken down and protagonists have switched sides.

Numerous energy companies, credit institutes and investment groups have recognized an attractive business perspective in the construction of renewable energy plants and the financing of research projects. For a long time, the economic and industrial associations stood firmly on the side of the established energy sector and joined it in criticizing renewable energy for its “impracticability” and in accusing its advocates of being “anti-business”. Now, they are beginning to laud the market opportunities brought by renewables. Local energy companies that had become the appendages of conventional energy providers are seeing renewable energy as a chance to become more independent. The more popular that alternative energy sources become, the more that political parties and institutions will adapt to them. A new generation of decision makers is also emerging in the established energy sector that recognizes that nuclear energy and fossil-fuel energy lead to a dead end. They are therefore attempting to shape the switchover to renewables in a way that matches with the structure of conventional energy supply. The old methods of opposition no longer work. Now it’s all about joining in, about boarding the train in time, so at least to be able to influence its route and velocity. At the same time, energy companies point to the fact that they are investing in renewables to justify their persistence with nuclear energy and fossil fuels.

Just as the front of former opponents of renewables is collapsing, so the spectrum of supporters is beginning to differentiate. Advocates of renewables still regard energy provision as hinging upon the traditional energy economy yet detect in its altered tone a willingness to cooperate. Builders of alternative energy plants are contracted by conventional energy companies and become business partners. Research institutes for renewable energies receive commissions from the conventional sector. Governments initiate talks on the co-existence of renewable and conventional energies and on the mutual staking of claims.

For many advocates of renewable energies, used to playing the role of the outsider, this appears as be major progress. Because consensus is always more pleasant than conflict, willingness to cooperate at the practical level is the result. Often, however, the largely invisible border between making concessions and compromising principles is unintentionally exceeded.

From concessions to compromise: Who has most clout?

All this is typical for transition phases, where all participants need to adjust to the new situation and many hope for a consensus that will bring a degree of certainty. Yet helpful and constructive as consensus can be, it can also paralyse. Not everyone can or wants to think about the process as a whole.

The question must therefore always be: Consensus for what and for whom? Who has most clout? Consensus among all those who will be affected in various ways from the switchover will inevitably slow the process down. On the other hand, is what is being sought consensus between those striving for a common goal, who join forces in order to achieve that goal? Consensus between all concerned on a quick energy switchover can be conceived only if the goal provides a win-win perspective for all. However this promise tends to be made by those who want to avoid the necessary conflicts. In the re-orientation towards renewable energy, a win-win scenario is objectively impossible.

The switch to 100 per cent renewable energy will involve the most comprehensive economic restructuring since the industrial revolution. A structural change without winners and losers is inconceivable. The losers will inevitably be the providers of conventional energy, although the degree to which they lose depends on their insight and their willingness and ability to restructure from head to toe, to come to terms with the fact of a drastically sinking market share and to find new fields of activity no longer connected to the energy economy. Attempts to escape the role of loser in this process of transformation and to retain their central role in the energy economy will lead to contradictory, unfeasible and expensive braking strategies. The winners of the energy switchover will be world civilization as a whole and its societies and economies, and within these technology companies and the many local and regional enterprises. Whatever happens, there will be many more winners than losers. A great many potential winners are not even aware of their opportunities, which is why they are still on the opposing side. Those with the greatest influence on practical events are still the established, potential losers, while those with less influence are the still far from established potential winners.

From the art of the possible to the art of the necessary

Various motives notwithstanding, both the economic and the political initiatives for renewable energies are pushing development forwards. However not all have the same value or are equally suited to the realization of a rapid energy switchover. One therefore needs to separate the wheat from the chaff.

What needs to be asked first is why the blatant and urgent question about the very existence of energy provision – which is, after all, a moral question – still tends to be treated half-heartedly, despite the thinness of the reasons given and the fact that it is now crucial to push ahead effectively with the switch to renewable energy.

All roads lead to Rome, though some are quicker than others. A variety of obstacles and practical problems pave the way and each has different political, economic, social and cultural consequences. It is all the more important, then, to clearly recognize those routes that allow the energy switchover to be achieved as soon as possible. Whether or not these routes are embarked upon is not something that can be decided in terms of “energy policy” alone. The national economy, politics as a whole and, not least, ethical principles must all be considered.

Each individual protagonist will need to ask what basic understanding of realism underlies their actions. Too many people understand realist action to be the pursuit of what seems realizable within the existing framework and the given balance of power. However when the analysis of an “is” situation produces only limited opportunities for action, action that fails to provide an adequate answer to the real challenge, then another understanding of realism is necessary that aims at altering the parallelogram of forces and so expands the scope of action.

Given the increasingly acute dangers posed by conventional energy, politics ceases to be the “art of the possible”. Today, it’s a question of enabling a politics as “art of the necessary”. That is the real realism needed for the energy switchover. The political key for the energy switchover is to break out of the existing framework governing the energy economy. The latter is necessarily particular and restricts the broader economic, social and cultural chances in the switchover to renewable energies. As a project for the future involving the economy and society as a whole, the energy switchover cannot be realized solely using the methods and calculations of the energy economy. The rapidly increasing variety of technological possibilities on the one hand, and the dramatic problems on the other, make it realizable with a speed that contemporary pragmatists consider impossible. A faster energy switchover requires numerous autonomous protagonists who do not wish to wait – and will not have to wait – for others before they launch their initiatives.

However overcoming timidity requires further political intervention. This is necessary because the conventional energy economy has only been able to obtain and retain its dominant role thanks to broad political protection. This protection, barely talked about and criticized far less than political initiatives for renewable energy, must finally be abandoned. The goal and starting point for this new “real realism” is not renewable energy as such, but rather society – stemming from an understanding of the elementary significance that the energy switchover has for society’s future.4 The switch to renewable energies is significant in the history of civilization. That is why we need to speed it up. It is not renewable energy resources that are in short supply, but time.

See Toralf Staud, Grün, grün, grün ist alles, was wir Kaufen: Lügen, bis das Image stimmt [Everything we buy is green, green, green: Lying until the image is right], Cologne 2009. See also: Rick Piltz, "Why is there no US climate policy", in Eurozine, 30.10.2009.

See Thomas Leif, "Enter the Fifth Estate: The lobbies' influence on journalism in Germany", in Eurozine, 31.12.2010.

I.e. the technical, infrastructural, organisational, financial and not least political effort required.

I did not enter politics from the renewable energy sector for politics' sake, but because of my understanding of political responsibility for renewable energies.

Published 22 April 2011
Original in German
Translated by Simon Garnett
First published by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 4/2011 (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik © Hermann Scheer / Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik / Eurozine



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