Energy transition in Europe’s power house: Disaster or creative destruction of the German power industry?

Remember the big, somewhat bulky Mercedes Benz cars of the early 1990s? State-of-the- art at that time, they chased their competitors on Germany’s autobahn. Mercedes is still here today, but the Germans fear that two decades of neglect after the reunification might have seriously damaged the once superb infrastructure of (West-) Germany. Similarly, Germany once possessed one of the world’s most well-engineered power systems. Yet in 2014 the country urgently needs new power grids – or ‘Stromautobahnen’ (electricity highways) – to keep supply stable despite growing numbers of volatile renewables. The ‘Energiewende’, that is the rapid transformation of the power system towards a massive increase of green energy thus raises concerns whether the project might turn out to be harmful for Germany’s industry.

Admittedly, electricity generation from renewables lately rose to new, unprecedented highs. But doubts remain, whether the transformation of the power sector can keep pace with the phase out of nuclear power, and whether the ambitions to run the country’s industry on renewables are realistic. Almost doubled since the year 2000, electricity tariffs are one of the indicators that the ‘Energiewende’ project could turn out to be a serious burden for the German economy. The fact that CO2 emissions did not decrease, but actually increase over the last years, is another sign that the project is not on track. Moreover, it is no secret that German energy companies are not doing well. Is Germany thus about to sacrifice the once famous reliability of its power system and its power industry for increasing greenhouse gas emissions? And if so, what might be the way forward? Back to nuclear energy?

The disastrous state of Germany’s repositories for radioactive waste such as Brunsbüttel and Asse are not encouraging. Moreover, public support for the nuclear phase-out and renewables is still great. Not without gusto, and to the great amusement of the participants of a conference in Berlin (2013), Vladimir Putin could thus offer the Germans firewood from Siberia to solve the country’s energy problems. Apparently the Energiewende did not exactly impress the Russians. But how about others? Japan – maybe ‘the’ potential partner for Germany’s Energiewende project – is about to fully relaunch its nuclear programme; the United States are happy with their shale gas, and at home in Europe not many countries joined the Germans either. On top of it Günther Oettinger, Germany’s accomplished top official in the European Commission, is no longer responsible for energy. It would hence seem that Germany’s energy policy has not many influential supporters left.

Remains the idea to sell green tech on the world markets. However, Desertec, the infamous project to build huge solar parks in the North African desert, turned out to be nothing but a mirage. In a sense this is not a big deal for the Germans, as many components of the project might have come from China anyway, where large parts of the production of solar panels went. But if the production of windmills would follow, the idea to make green tech a base for industrial production would experience a serious setback. It is hence doubtful whether renewables represent an adequate focal point for high-tech industries in Europe.  But most things in life have two sides. And so does Germany’s attempt to modernise – some would say revolutionise – its power sector.

The great hope is, that German engineering will once more surprise the world with technical solutions for difficult problems in difficult times. The power grid is central in this regard. If technical components such as storage could be found which allow a quick and flexible response to changes in the output of wind and solar power, and if consumption could react more flexibly to the ups and downs caused by the elements, then the zero marginal costs of renewables could indeed represent an alternative to other energy sources. The power grid and its components, not Vladimir Putin’s firewood, could thus be the ‘Wunderwaffe’ able to solve Germany’s energy problems. But these new techniques need to be affordable, otherwise the effect will be negligible and only perpetuate the existing problems.

Another, yet much less debated issue concerns the country’s nuclear programme. If Germany will indeed pursue on the given course, the development of third generation nuclear plants will be in the hand of countries such as France, Britain and Poland who are not following the example of Germany’s nuclear phase-out. But German industry is famous for its ability to occupy profitable technological niches. Given that there are many nuclear power stations to be dismantled, and a lot of nuclear waste already rotting in the state of Germany, the Germans will have to find solutions to deal with it. If they still are the engineers they used to be, so they will.

Can another Chernobyl happen in Ukraine?

In this piece Alexander Donetsky claims that the use of Westinghouse fuel in Ukrainian nuclear plants might cause a disaster comparable to the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986

Author: Alexander Donetsky

Not any European will remember what exactly happened on April 26, 1986 near the place called Chernobyl. This day the second largest (after Fukushima) nuclear accident took place. It was not the first time, something like that had happened in Long Island, the USA. Back then thousands had to be relocated and the measures to counter radioactive contamination had to be taken. But it was far from Europe unlike in the case of Chernobyl when the tragedy left many traces all around the continent. 28 years have passed. Chernobyl has been turned into a national park; the plant stopped functioning while the reactor is isolated from environment. The territory was decontaminated with high radiation remaining detected only in a few places. But it would be an exaggeration to say Chernobyl poses no threat anymore. A new storage for Westinghouse used fuel is going to be constructed by 2017. The $800 million construction will be paid for by Europeans who have no relation to US fuel producers…

[…]

One has to know at least some basic things to destroy a reactor. It’s much worse when experts get involved to change the ways the station is run. For instance, if they want to store the type of fuel not recommended for storage and use by instructions. In 2000 President Yushenko ordered to get rid of Russian fuel. The South Ukrainian plant near the Black Sea used the fuel of Westinghouse. It almost led to an accident. The cladding that surrounds Russian and American fuel assemblies are made from very different materials. The storage equipment could not handle this type of fuel. The nuclear power plant underwent depressurization of Westinghouse fuel elements, assemblies started to get deformed, the operation got stuck. Trying to avoid the new Chernobyl, the Ukrainian nuclear industry suffered many million loses while trying to repair the damage caused by the use of American fuel. Now the Ukrainian government has decided to take a politically motivated decision to use US non-organic fuel instead of the Russian one. The storage is needed because unlike the Russian companies, Westinghouse does not take back the worked out fuel for recycling. Now American radiation will threaten Europeans at their own expense.

[…]

The experience shows the US fuel cannot be used in Ukraine for safety reasons. US military personnel is already operating the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Station keeping the Ukrainian employees at the distance, no matter they have the needed qualification to operate exactly the reactors of the given type. In the given case the Americans are not even professionals from Westinghouse, but the military, that is the people who are not interested in safety standards. One can only guess what kind of consequences it may have for Europe. Will the nuclear plane still be operational as a result of these experiments? What about American «specialists» operating other Ukrainian plants, does it serve the interests of European business? What if, besides the Westinghouse storage in Chernobyl, Europeans will have to restore damaged reactors of other plants and decontaminate the territory in Ukraine and other countries at their own expense?

France has experience of being under the pressure of the United States trying to make others use the Westinghouse produced fuel. As a result the French had to put aside many technologies of their own and pay for American licenses to produce and export something they could have done independently. The same thing is to take place in Ukraine. The United States takes advantage of its control over Kiev implementing the American concept «Ukraine- Europe’s energy hub». As a result, Ukrainian plants will use American fuel running inevitable safety risks. It means Ukrainian politicians are used to make Europe dependent on US energy supplies, something the United States has been trying to achieve for a long time. The Ukrainian «energy hub» is a step on this way. It’s not even about falling under control but rather succumbing to pressure if one remembers the risk of using the Westinghouse fuel by Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

Update:

Westinghouse Asks EU to Tackle Russian Monopoly on Nuclear Fuel

The Moscow Times

Aug. 21 2014 21:23

Last edited 21:24

Francois Lenoir / ReutersHungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic exclusively use nuclear fuel rods supplied by Russian company TVEL to power their VVER nuclear reactors.

U.S.-Japanese atomic group Westinghouse is lobbying the EU to break Eastern European countries’ reliance on Russian nuclear fuel used to power their Soviet-era power plants, the Financial Times reported.

The diplomatic spat between the West and Russia over Ukraine has highlighted Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas amid fears of supply disruptions in winter, but Westinghouse has said that Brussels also needs to offset Russia’s dominance in nuclear fuel supply to the bloc’s east.

Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic exclusively use nuclear fuel rods supplied by Russian company TVEL to power their VVER nuclear reactors, which cover a significant portion of their domestic electricity needs, leaving them vulnerable to Russian retaliation against EU sanctions.

“This is a clear security of supply issue … you do not have a second supplier,” Westinghouse deputy president for strategy Michael Kirst said, the Financial Times reported Wednesday. “The utilities that are entirely dependent on Russia are playing a game of gambling here,” he said, adding that having an additional supplier is more than just a political safeguard, but also a defense against technical failures.

Westinghouse, which was priced out of the market for VVER reactor fuel rods by Russia in 2007, has asked the EU to enact a “security of supply mandate” similar to the one used to force open the French nuclear fuel market in 2000. Such a plan would force Eastern European companies to diversify their fuel sources, a situation that Westinghouse could benefit from by stepping into the breach.

Westinghouse says it could resume VVER fuel rod production with an investment of $20 million if allowed back into the market, but cautioned that such a plan would take at least two years.

Ukraine’s nuclear power plants: What should, what can be done?

Author: Thomas Sattich

Ukraine’s power system can stand representative for the country’s geopolitical situation: Consisting of several sub-systems, one part of the country’s power system in the West is integrated in the continental European, whereas the Eastern parts of the country remain part of the post-Soviet power system. On the other hand Ukraine is independent when it comes to electricity supply: Most of the generated power is also consumed in the country, with balanced import-export figures. Limited interaction with neighbouring countries is rather the rule than the exception in Europe, but the given these figures, Ukraine can be described as highly self-sufficient in electricity supply.

15 nuclear power reactors back Ukraine’s independence: Atomic energy accounts for more than half of generated electricity in Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine is the second-largest producer of Uranium in Europe after Russia.

The significance of nuclear energy for the country’s economy can hence hardly be overstated. But Ukraine seems to be at the brink of anarchy: Despite several initiatives to bring the country’s unrest to a halt, Ukraine has fallen into a bloody civil war between army, right wing extremists and armed separatist groups. The situation also indicates increasing economic tension, political unrest, and continuing street violence. As if the situation was not worrying enough, several reports mention threats for the country’s nuclear programme. Europeans are therefore confronted with a very serious question: What to do with Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure?

Since the Euromaidan events in early 2014, Ukraine is sliding into an abyss of civil war and chaos. International negotiations so far failed to stop this downward spiral, as apparently not all sides are equally interested in a peaceful development. The question, who is to blame for this situation, certainly is a very important one. In view of the threats for Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, the blame game has, however, little meaning: Ways have to be found to secure the plants against immediate threats. This should be one of the first priorities during the negotiations.

It is of course difficult to forecast the country’s future course. Yet despite this distinct insecurity, medium and long-term solutions have to be found to neutralise the threat originating from Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure. At least in this regard the conflicting parties should be able to agree. Insofar Ukraine’s nuclear power plants might be a somewhat neutral item for constructive negotiations. In any case, a survey of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, their current state and their potential future is necessary, before further analysis of what can be done.

Only in a second step reflections on potential ways to take action can be discussed. Ultimately this is an older debate, as the state of the country’s nuclear programme was cause for concerns long before February 2014. But the current crisis accelerated developments and put Ukraine on a trajectory that demands renewed thinking about this issue. The author of this blog will  therefore ask what means and programmes the EU (possibly) has to deal with Ukraine’s nuclear infrastructure and the Ukrainian power system. Given the highly political nature of the Ukrainian issue, a European contribution can, however, be only one part of a bigger puzzle.

Update 07 August 2014:

Electricity generation in Ukraine, 1992 - 2011
Electricity generation in Ukraine (in billion kilowatthours), 1992 – 2011