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Germany Takes the Post-Nuclear Plunge

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A few years ago, my family and I spent April school vacation at my mom’s house in North Carolina. On our first day there, the weather was a brisk 60 degrees with a chilling 30 mile per hour wind. My kids took this as a sign to go swimming.

When we got to the pool, the water was cold as ice. There was only one other family there, and they turned out to be fellow members of the only tribe crazy or stupid enough to go swimming on such a day: New Englanders.

When you get as much experience as we do swimming in chilly ocean water, you learn quickly that the best way to get in is to take the plunge, all at once.

Germany is taking a plunge of its own right now, as that nation leaps into a post-nuclear future following its decision to scrap its existing nuclear power plants by 2022. 

The dramatic move away from nuclear power has brought all sorts of doomsaying – from utilities saying they will havetrouble keeping the lights on to climate campaigners worrying about the inevitable short-term rise in carbon dioxide emissions that will result as Germany makes the transition to renewable energy.

Of course, I share the concern about global warming pollution – we have extremely little wiggle room as a planet when it comes to global warming and every increase in pollution brings disaster that much nearer. But I am still convinced that it is the right move – and one that the United States should emulate.

The first thing to remember in evaluating Germany’s decision is that nuclear power plants do not last forever. They will eventually need to be replaced, and the Fukushima experience suggests that those with aging designs should be replaced sooner rather than later. We know that replacing them with new nuclear plants is likely to be extremely costly, time consuming, and incompatible with the maximization of clean energy sources – in other words, a bad idea. So Germany’s action can be understood as merely hastening the inevitable by confronting a challenge that other industrial nations would just as soon ignore.

Germany’s action is also accompanied by a plan to dramatically ramp up the nation’s production of renewable energy – from 20 percent of its electricity in the first half of 2011 to 39 percent by 2020. That is nearly enough to cover the 23 percent of electricity that currently comes from nuclear power. Offshore wind energy will be a big part of this. Energy efficiency improvements are also part of the plan, as are improvements in the grid. 

Will it all work? It is far from certain – after all, it has never been done before. But Germany’s bold move to eliminate nuclear power is much more likely to achieve success precisely because it is a bold move. 

The 10-year time frame for replacing nuclear power with clean energy is focusing the minds of Germany’s political, business and social leaders in a way that a slower or more conditional target would not have. Imagine, for example, if John F. Kennedy had committed the United States to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the decade is out … or, if that proves to be inconvenient, a few years later. No rush.”  Would Americans have risen to the challenge?

Which brings me to the final reason that Germany’s move is so exciting: it is an opportunity to prove, once and for all, that renewable energy can carry the ball of powering an industrial economy. No amount of natural gas or coal with carbon sequestration is going to get us to the 80 to 90 percent reductions in global warming pollution we need to stave off disaster – if we’re going to get there, clean energy is going to have to play a big role. If Germany can pull this off – and do it over the span of just a decade – just think of what the United States can achieve with our vastly superior renewable energy resources.

If I were a betting man, my money would be on the Germans. After all, they have recent experience with ramping up their production of renewable energy - from 5 percent of their electricity supply in 1998 to 20 percent today. And perhaps no citizenry in the world is as motivated to get off nuclear power as those who had the misfortune to be downwind from Chernobyl when that plant blew up in 1986.

On a day when today’s paper contains news of the shaky earthquake readiness of U.S. nuclear plants and of failures among the control room staff of Massachusetts’ Pilgrim reactor during a recent emergency shutdown, the case for weaning America off our aging nuclear power plants is stronger than ever. Let’s hope that Germany can be an example of how to make it happen.