Numlock Sunday: Alexander Kaufman on the nuclear energy moment
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Alexander Kaufman, who wrote Germany Shuts Down Its Last Nuclear Power Reactors for HuffPost. Here's what I wrote about it:
Germany has shut down the last of its nuclear power plants, for some reason, with six reactors shut down since the end of 2021. Those six reactors produced more zero-carbon electricity than all of the solar panels in Germany combined, and last year produced more than all of the wind and solar in Denmark. Wholesale energy prices are up in Germany significantly compared to the baseline, hovering at 135 euros per megawatt-hour as of the start of the year. It’s prompted protests not just among Germans, as the loss of all that carbon-free energy will be felt across the continent. The positive news for nuclear advocates is that five of the six reactors can be restored to full operation without any major effort or modifications, and the sixth is still reversible.
Alex has been covering the nuclear world for a long time now, and has been incredibly insightful about the energy technology and what it offers and costs the world. He’s been covering the rises and falls of the industry the world over and today we talked all about where nuclear is inexplicably retreating, where it’s making a massive comeback, and the unexpected, developing countries that see atomic energy as their ticket to a diversified green economy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Alex, it has been a busy couple weeks in the world of nuclear energy. You have been covering this field for a pretty long time at this point, and I've always really appreciated your insights on how the world is working with this, or not working with it as a matter of fact. I guess just can you give us a broad view of the past couple years of nuclear energy and then what's happened recently?
Sure, and thank you for your continued interest in this because I obviously think it's a really important story that doesn't get enough attention. I think it's important to understand that we were seeing the dawn of what was supposed to be a nuclear renaissance of reactor construction across the West in the early 2000s, as the realities of climate change were starting to set in, and as there was still a lot of debate over things like peak oil and peak gas. This predates the U.S. fracking boom.
Nuclear was really gaining a lot of attention and two aspects of its generating really had a new premium in this era. One being that you only need to refuel a reactor once every few years, so you're not dependent on a globally traded commodity like natural gas, which can be manipulated in for geopolitical reasons. And two, it produces huge amounts of nonstop carbon-free electricity. And I say nonstop to contrast it with wind and solar, which are obviously intermittent and weather dependent. Fukushima helped to kibosh those plans, as did the U.S. fracking boom. But what we've seen in the last couple of years is, I think, a reconsideration, both of the risks that we saw in Fukushima, and of the benefits that we were weighing before Fukushima about nuclear reactors. At the UN Climate Summit in late 2021, you saw a bunch of different countries coming forward in making big commitments around building more nuclear. China said it would build more than 150 reactors in 15 years, which is more than the entire world built in the preceding 35 years.
It had various countries announcing that they would build their first nuclear reactors, whether that was a place like Ghana or Indonesia. And you had countries like Japan which had shut down or temporarily paused their nuclear reactors after Fukushima saying that they would not only reverse that and get these reactors going again, but that they would actually build a bunch of new reactors to meet their future energy needs. What happened shortly after that was the Russians invaded Ukraine, and began to weaponize natural gas exports to Western Europe. There was an energy crisis that sprang from that and an effort to try to get off Russian natural gas by using more heat pumps and electricity. The problem there is that you need a huge, steady, cheap, abundant, and, most importantly in this case, carbon-free supply of electricity to actually keep those things going and make that an affordable and attractive option for people.
And while some countries have interpreted that as meaning they really need to build new reactors or reverse their antipathy toward reactors and nuclear energy, at least in the short term? Then you have countries like Germany, which as of last week shut down their last reactors, ending a really high-performing and storied nuclear program on grounds that many people see it as completely ideological, and just fundamentally impractical, for a large manufacturing economy struggling through an energy crisis where you saw people buying candles and chopping wood to survive just the last winter. Not even years ago, this is just last winter. And yet here they are shutting down this steady, carbon-free source of electricity that they control and don't rely on the Russians for constant imports in order to run them.
It's been a complicated year. You've been alluding to a couple of different countries over the course of this. Do you want to talk about a few in particular? I know that the elephant in the room is Germany and they've had a unique geopolitical situation. Do you want to talk a little bit about them?
Sure. Germany is a really interesting case. Germany is obviously the largest economy in Europe, major manufacturing economy, a place where lots of "dirty" business plays out. This is one of the major exporters of automobiles to the world, but this is also a place where there is an acute understanding and concern about environmental issues; that's been especially true of Germany for a long time. It's also a place where the Cold War played out in really stark terms. Germany split in two after World War II, became really the lead battleground.
Germany became the lead battleground in the game of nuclear saber-rattling throughout the Cold War, and Germans were rightfully traumatized by the reality of having enough nuclear weapons aimed on either side of the border that split their country to wipe out human civilization multiple times over, and that gave rise to an anti-nuclear movement in West Germany. It started as opposition to nuclear weapons, and it evolved over time to oppose nuclear energy as well. It was quite the opposite on the east side of Germany where the communists were very proud of their nuclear reactors as a symbol of Soviet technological prowess over the West.
Nevertheless, when Germany reunified in the 1990s, the victorious, if you will, West German side hit pause on any new reactor construction that was happening in the GDR in order to basically streamline the regulations between both countries. There were still a lot of angst over Soviet regulation of nuclear power after Chernobyl just a few years earlier, and that basically halted reactor construction in that country indefinitely.
There was a bit of a reconsideration of that in the early 2000s, around the same time that the U.S. was looking at a nuclear renaissance, but the reaction to Fukushima was extremely swift. The German Green Party, which is currently in control of the Ministry of Economics which oversees energy policy, has gotten a lot of blame for the nuclear phase out, being ardent anti-nuclear partisans themselves. It's a party where some supporters of nuclear energy claim that the communist East Germans had infiltrated early on, in order to sabotage the civilian nuclear program in West Germany, with the goal of creating these exact sorts of conditions: a country that did not have the technological prowess and the sovereignty that nuclear reactors offered, and would be more dependent on other countries and thus more manipulable, not unlike what we've seen with Russian natural gas in Germany. This is not my way of suggesting that there is some grand conspiracy here; I would gather that it's more mundane than that. But that is nevertheless an effect in some context that some Germans see.
Now, the Germans are not alone in this. They are seen as having the most aggressive phase out, and while the Greens were responsible, pretty much everyone across the German political spectrum, when Fukushima happened in 2011, everyone was eager to get off nuclear and wanted it to happen very quickly. But it wasn't just them. The Koreans elected a president who vowed to end nuclear energy and did a pretty good job of kneecapping their very vibrant industry there.
Similarly, in November, I was in Taiwan, a country that perhaps feels the acute risk of losing sovereignty over one's energy more than anyone, other than Ukraine. And that country still is pursuing a very aggressive phase out policy, which should see its final reactors shut down by 2025, putting it right behind Germany as two of the only countries on earth to ever actually fully abandon nuclear energy.
There's a lot of walk back from it, but at the same time, it's not as simple of a story as that. You are seeing that some of the deactivations are designed to not be fundamentally permanent. At the same time, you are seeing other countries potentially take a unique interest in cracking atoms for energy.
That's right. You see a lot of African countries expressing a lot of interest and excitement over this. I'm about to go on vacation to Jamaica, actually tomorrow, and visit my father-in-law's family from there. While I was doing some reading before going, I learned that the only nuclear reactor in the Caribbean is located in Jamaica. It's used for running tests with nuclear medicine.
But here is a place that is highly dependent on really dirty and expensive diesel imports and oil imports for electricity, and there are a lot of people there who say, "Oh, wind and solar, that's the future for sun-soaked Caribbean nation like this." But as your readers well know, wind and solar take up a lot of land. They don't run all the time. And if you are just looking to keep the lights on in your little summer home, maybe that'll be enough. But if you are looking to do some nation building and perhaps bring some industry there so that an island republic like Jamaica could become less dependent on European and North American tourism, which just completely dominates its economy, then you need some firmer energy sources. And this is one that some engineers and advocates from Jamaica who I've spoken to think has some promise.
It's still probably many years away, but I think it's an illustrative example of how people in these developing countries, places that really need steady, carbon-free electricity, are looking at the novel innovations in nuclear technology and saying a giant gigawatt-scale nuclear reactor, the likes of which we see in Russia or the United States or France, probably isn't going to work for an island like ours. But a small modular reactor, the types that are being licensed and designed in the U.S. and the U.K. and China and Russia right now, and which a lot of people in the U.S. industry think will be more competitive for building new nuclear reactors in America under the American market system? They look at that and see that as really promising, which shows you how some of the rest of the world, the people who are still used to dealing with blackouts and the kinds of issues of energy and security, issues that we are starting to see a little bit here now with the shutdown of our nuclear plant and the overdependence on gas in our great city of New York.
For a place like Jamaica, I think that's a little bit more acute and the stakes are a little bit different. The way that they think about it is a little bit different, too. They're in the midst of nation building; it's not really a debate over what kind of developed state it should have in the same way. They are starting from scratch and able to think on different kinds of timelines. I think it's really interesting to consider that when they look at where they're starting from and look out to the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, they're not waiting for the world to end. They're not engaging in some kind of retreat, to living on communes and relying on a “less is more” rationing mentality. They want something that is going to offer them power, strength and dynamism. And I think with that, I think that's useful for a lot of people engaging in the debate over nuclear energy in a country like the U.S. to understand.
That's a really compelling idea, again, because there are a lot of resource-poor countries in the world that are islands that are somewhat remote that have to afford energy. And if you look at the ones that have successfully industrialized, like Japan and Taiwan, as you were saying, and even stuff like Britain, they're all very nuclear societies.
Yeah, exactly. That nuclear energy had its greatest appeal in places that were not naturally blessed with exploitable fossil fuel resources, namely places like Britain — well, Britain has a lot of coal, but Japan and Taiwan and even you can understand the appeal for a place like China, which obviously does have a lot of resources and a lot of land, but is quite mountainous, has an enormous population, and thus needs to consider how much of that land is important to feeding its people, not just providing them with energy. I should say I think it's very silly to be overdependent on any one thing. I think the clearest thinkers on the energy transition are people who recommend a diversified portfolio for most places. But you get a lot of these renewable partisans who say, "Well, if the issue is carbon-free or fossil, why wouldn't we just do renewables?" And there are a lot of answers for that in a lot of different places.
But the most important one to me, especially in the context of an island country, is that renewables require a lot of space. They also require you to overproduce, so that you can be storing that much more energy for when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. And that space is not something that people living in small island countries always have in abundance, particularly when some of the nicest swathes of land are controlled by Western tourism companies and resort developers.
I don't know that this is the only option that would appeal. There are a lot of exciting things for island countries, for example, with the very nascent technology to harness kinetic energy from waves or from tides. That is talked about as something really exciting and because tides are predictable, you could have a more predictable energy system than relying exclusively on wind and solar for your energy. Perhaps that will develop in the meantime and could be so great that it makes nuclear reactors irrelevant to Jamaica at the time that becomes commercially viable and the governance structures in Jamaica are in place. But that is also something that's very limited and has a lot of geographical considerations. Probably would need also a large area of ocean for generation that could currently be used for sunbathing or nature or fishing.
It's also very speculative while nuclear has been settled science for 70 years.
It's extremely speculative. That's very true. And you have to consider, too, what the ambitions of the country may be at any given time. You're going to see a lot of traffic increasing in the sea lanes past Jamaica, headed to the widened Panama Canal, and having refueling destinations and the industries that can feed off that and spawn from that is a potential opportunity for a place like Jamaica. And having access to huge amounts of carbon-free electricity perhaps, which they could use for running electrolysis plants in order to produce hydrogen fuel, green hydrogen fuel, which could be used to refuel some of these tanker ships or could be used to refuel other smaller vessels going by there.
This is all completely speculative, but this is the sort of thing that you can start to imagine when you look at an energy transition, not about some kind of mythical rebalancing with Gaia, and not about some kind of triage in order to get away from high-emitting sources of electricity. You can start thinking, when you're looking through that abundance lens, at a very different kind of possibility.
And why shouldn't Jamaica get to dream of a more technologically advanced future than where it finds itself today as the vacation destination for so many foreigners? Why shouldn't it get to be that, and more?
Rock on. All right. Alex, where can folks find you and find your writing?
Well, you can read me on the HuffPost. I try to send out my most important stories here on Substack, at kaufman.substack.com, and on Twitter, maybe less these days, but on Twitter @AlexCKaufman.