Nuclear energy belongs into the progressive discourses

Journalist Gideon Böss recently conducted an extensive interview with Nuklearia board member Dr. Anna Veronika Wendland for the German “Spiegel” magazine. The interview appeared online on Spiegel on March 28th, 2019. Here we are providing an English translation of the full interview, with the kind permission of the interviewer, the interviewee and the Spiegel editors.

🇩🇪Das vollständige Interview ist auch auf Deutsch verfügbar.

Dr. Anna Veronika Wendland is a specialist in Eastern Europe and Science & Technology Studies at Herder Institute for Eastern Central European Historical Research, an institute of Leibniz Association in Marburg. For several years, she has been researching the history of nuclear technology and has become a nuclear dissident. She blogs about energy and climate policy and volunteers for the Nuklearia association »for the nuclear re-alphabetisation of the Germans«, as she describes her work.

SPIEGEL: Nuclear power is officially being abolished in Germany. What is the motivation for continuing to support this form of energy?

WENDLAND: My motivation comes from a question that concerns a lot of people: How can we create an environmental-friendly industrial society? I’ve worked a lot on nuclear energy, I’ve done a lot of research at nuclear power plants. I came to the conclusion that the nuclear phase-out was a mistake. Because the most powerful instrument to make an electricity industry environment-friendly, low in carbon dioxide, and at the same time secure for supply is a nuclear power plant.

SPIEGEL: You are quite alone in Germany with your enthusiasm for nuclear power. What makes you so sure that you are still right and not the famous ghost driver who is annoyed by the hundreds of wrong drivers on the motorway?

WENDLAND: Naive enthusiasm for nuclear technology would be completely out of place in the discussion that must be conducted today: Which technology is realistically able to guarantee electricity supply to industrialised countries in a climate-neutral, safe and economical way? Renewables alone cannot achieve this due to their low reliability and energy density. Am I standing alone? There were times when even the Greens stood alone. Such things can change in a relatively short period of time, also due to bad experiences. In the meantime, the shortcomings of the German energy transition are becoming more and more apparent, and it is failing to meet its own climate targets. In many countries, Germany is rather perceived as the ghost driver.

SPIEGEL: Being a nuclear proponent is nothing for which you can count on a lot of recognition. Why are you doing this to yourself in the first place, taking up this position publicly and acting as an activist?

WENDLAND: I think my position is wrongly tabooed and discredited, and I think this matter is urgent. That is why I am speaking up. Nuclear energy once was a leftist and progressive project, and there it belongs again, into the progressive discourses. Recognition is such a thing. Which recognition is worth what? The easily-earned applause of the fear campaign? Or the approval of people who understand their subject? You have to reckon with scorn and hostility and get it done if you speak for nuclear energy in Germany. The recognition that encourages me comes from scientists, but also from politicians. I even received secret encouragement from Greens who are becoming aware of the serious shortcomings of the energy transition.

SPIEGEL: Opponents of nuclear power often experienced a life-changing event like Chernobyl that has shaped them. What did change your life to become a pro-nuclear activist?

WENDLAND: I too became an opponent of nuclear power after the Chernobyl shock of 1986, like most of my generation. But I was very interested in sciences and so I intensively researched the technical side of the nuclear industry, which somehow also fascinated me. My life-changing experience came three years later when I was studying in Kiev, at the gates of Chernobyl, so to speak. At that time I met people who had worked in the nuclear power plant and had witnessed the accident. Nevertheless, they did not condemn nuclear energy as such, they spoke with great warmth of their work there. They just said that we never again have to run down nuclear energy such as it was in the Soviet Union. This shattered my anti-nuclear view of the world and also laid the foundation for my later scholarly occupation with nuclear energy.

SPIEGEL: But the Chernobyl desaster wasn’t that romantic. For example, the World Health Organization warns of an increased number of cancers in certain regions of Belarus, which were particularly affected by the emission of radiation, and of up to 4,000 possible fatalities as a result of the long-term consequences of the disaster. Besides, thousands of clean up workers deployed in Chernobyl face serious health problems.

WENDLAND: I wasn’t talking about the accident at first, but about the lives of these people before that accident. In these Soviet lives, nuclear energy was an enormous social mobilizing force. There can be no talk of romance at all, even if the old engineers perhaps see it that way today. It is not my intention to trivialise this accident and its effects. Nor, however, is it my intention to exaggerate it, as happens in many dubious publications. There are not many millions of Chernobyl victims still to be expected, but, according to the World Health Organisation, the several thousand you mentioned. In Germany, where people are really panicking after Chernobyl, the health effects of this accident are not statistically detectable at all.

SPIEGEL: You say that many opponents of nuclear energy are afraid of nuclear energy without understanding it. Are opponents of nuclear energy irrational?

WENDLAND: People tend to overestimate small but dramatically perceived risks and underestimate large, everyday risks. Nuclear energy in Germany has also been produced culturally and by discourse, not only technically and economically. Firstly, in the critical discourses, many speakers equated nuclear power plants with the atomic bomb. Secondly, the nuclear facilities, their rigid safety regimes, and their strict clearance procedures for accession produced the image of something extra-ordinary. All this has contributed to nuclear anxiety. Added to this was a historically deeply rooted critique of technology and modernity in Germany, which was originally primarily based in the conservative camp. It would be too short-sighted to accuse the anti-nuclear movement of irrationality. It has built up a critical counter-expertise, e.g., in the Öko Institutes. But in the media discourse, in everyday life, an extremely unobjective position towards nuclear technology or ionizing radiation dominates.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain this presumed journalistic one-sidedness?

WENDLAND: Many journalists confuse criticism with attitude. Critical and investigative reporting meant being critical of the state and of industry, and over a long period of time with good reason. And the public pressure on the nuclear power plant operators ultimately benefited our nuclear safety culture very much. But then criticism turned to black-and-white thinking. Here the environmentalists, there the big companies, the nuclear and coal lobbies. In the meantime, however, renewable energies have also grown into industry, with everything that goes with it: lobbying, state subsidies, environmental damage. The environmental movement is in the hands of professional campaigners who are not afraid of dubious arguments. There is almost no critical investigation into these phenomena by our media.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps it is also due to the fact that accidents involving renewable energy sources are not likely to lead to millions of additional cancer cases, as for example estimated in a study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Economics in 1992. And you don’t have to leave your homeland permanently if a wind farm goes up in flames.

WENDLAND: Right, when a wind farm burns down, nobody cares. But if you already compare the wind farm directly with the nuclear plant, you should also let the figures speak for themselves. In terms of fatalities per megawatt hour produced, nuclear energy is roughly equal to wind and solar energy, including the major nuclear accidents. The results of three decades of serious Chernobyl research show what can be said about the “millions of additional cancer cases”. In large parts of the so-called “death zones” of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the local dose rates are below the natural radiation levels in many places of the world where people are living unharmed. This has caused a discussion as to whether the very low legal limits, which lead to the evacuation of entire regions in the event of nuclear accidents, are justified. On the other hand, it would be naïve to assume that renewables have no consequences for humans and animals in whose habitats they are built. What is currently happening here is a brute transformation of cultural and natural landscapes into installation spaces for renewables. At some point, people may evacuate themselves from such landscapes because they can no longer stand living in them.

SPIEGEL: Why do you actually rule out that the energy transition could work?

WENDLAND: It can work. But not in the way that is commonly assumed. You can supply a society with one hundred percent renewable energy if you radically rebuild it. This includes relocalizing value chains and mobility and declaring post-growth society as a goal. But such a society is likely to be established only through compulsion. As a trained historian of Eastern Europe, I know quite well about political orders that wanted to reshape society and create a new human being. I don’t want to go down that road.

SPIEGEL: The question is, what role does the nuclear industry actually play for the economic stability of the world? It contributes only about ten percent to global electricity production. It doesn’t sound as if you have to go back to the Middle Ages to generate it elsewhere.

WENDLAND: I agree with you. But the question is whether we can live on as before if we replace all fossil power stations and nuclear power stations with renewables, as many climate activists are calling for. Where nuclear generation was being replaced after Fukushima, both here in Germany and in Japan, it was being replaced by fossil generation. If, at the same time, we want to save the climate without introducing an authoritarian post-growth society, then that is definitely the wrong way to go. Rather, extremely dense nuclear energy would then be the legitimate successor to electricity generation from fossil sources.

SPIEGEL: Supporters of nuclear power like to propagate nuclear power as climate-neutral because CO2 production is low. But if one regards the carbon footprint of uranium mining and the subsequent storage of nuclear waste, this is clearly put into perspective. Is it really appropriate to describe nuclear power as environmentally friendly?

WENDLAND: Taking into account its entire production chain, including uranium mining and storage, nuclear energy is roughly on a level with wind power in terms of its CO2 balance. However, the real environmental advantage of nuclear energy lies in its energy density. It is minimally invasive in terms of land consumption. And it opens up immense opportunities for the further development of an industrial society, for example by providing electricity for the synthesis of environmentally friendly fuels, for hydrogen electrolysis, which is of interest both for mobility solutions and for low-carbon steel production through hydrogen reduction.

SPIEGEL: You say that nuclear power plants, in contrast to renewable energies, supply reliable energy. But some nuclear reactors fail for months or even years. There were phases in which almost half of all nuclear power plants were not available. This, in turn, does not sound particularly reliable.

WENDLAND: This is the price for nuclear safety: that a plant remains off the grid even in the slightest doubt until that doubt has been clarified. In the global North, there are two main reasons for long-term suspension phases: Firstly, the increasing age of the plants, which increases their susceptibility to repairs. Another factor, however, is the rigorous approval practice of the supervisory authorities, which often delay start-up dates by imposing additional requirements. The databases of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that nuclear power plants have capacity factors between 73 and 82 percent over the last twenty years, which is similar to that of conventional thermal power plants. The German plants were once again above this average. By way of comparison, the availability of German offshore wind power, the most reliable form of wind energy, averaged a 40 percent capacity factor in 2018.

SPIEGEL: You are also active in the Nuklearia association, a kind of NGO for nuclear power. This association often criticises Svenja Schulze, the Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU). For what reason?

WENDLAND: In the Federal Republic of Germany, nuclear supervision is a responsibility of the federal states, but the BMU is entitled to issue directives to the state authorities. We expect political neutrality from a federal authority that deals with nuclear safety. Instead, the BMU makes highly problematic statements about German nuclear facilities. Its public relations work can no longer be distinguished from Greenpeace to some extent. However, it is not the task of the executive branch to adopt the positions of anti-nuclear NGOs.

SPIEGEL: Events such as the Nuclear Pride Fest are intended to increase public interest in nuclear power. The last one took place in Munich in October. How are such events accepted by the population?

WENDLAND: The Nuclear Pride Fest took place in wonderful weather on Marienplatz and actually reminded me of typical green demos. With improvised information stands and homemade songs. That was the attraction, because it seemed so completely different from what the nuclear industry would do, whose presentations are always very sterile and cleaned up, without living people. The question of whether such an action really reaches many people is difficult to answer. The many tourists were surprised. Citizens came to the information stands and discussed with us. And what also pleased us was that there was no trouble with opponents of nuclear power, which we really feared in advance in view of the hate comments on Facebook.

SPIEGEL: Is it misleading to think that the proponents of nuclear power are increasingly proactively advertising their position?

WENDLAND: This is indeed the case, and it is also because something has started to move. In the diesel debate, people are noticing that the ecological regulation of their lives is more and more getting down to business. The issue of electricity is still abstract: There are no blackouts, because nuclear and coal-fired power plants have so far been able to compensate during darkness and doldrums. But people associate their private lives, their freedom of movement, with their own cars. At the same time, however, the climate debate is also gaining momentum from the other side, with people realizing that the measures chosen by the government are hardly taking effect. That’s why it’s probably easier to talk about nuclear energy again today.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the fear of nuclear power predominates among people. According to an Emnid survey, only 5 to 10 percent of Germans would find a nuclear power plant “good” or “very good” in their neighbourhood. Do you still think you can turn Germans into nuclear power fans?

WENDLAND: Germany does not need nuclear power fans. What we need are people who can realistically assess the risks of different types of energy conversion. All sides should be honest. There will be more acceptance for nuclear energy when inherently safe new reactors are finally built. But even the citizens who are critical of nuclear energy dare to have some illusions. They think they only have to choose between lower and higher electricity prices, which they are already paying, and would automatically get more security. In reality, however, the situation is different: If they want reliable supplies, they have to accept that renewables need a shadow fossil or nuclear power plant park, whether at home or abroad. The German government is evidently now fully backing Russian gas to save the “Energiewende”. This in turn collides with other goals: climate targets, security policy targets. If, on the other hand, you want a fully renewable supply, you have to learn to live with electricity bottlenecks.

SPIEGEL: Germany is an influential country. What happens here is globally recognized. What about the energy transition? Are we pioneers or are we standing alone?

WENDLAND: We’re pretty lonely these days. No other leading industrialised country is simultaneously opting out of all forms of secure power supply, nuclear and coal-fired. Western countries have watched us with interest for a long time to see if this transformation can work. But this interest has been replaced by disillusionment and scepticism. Most Eastern Europeans, on the other hand, regard us as insane. A Ukrainian nuclear engineer once told me: “A country that is relocating its capital may well be able to scrap the world’s best nuclear power plants without need.”

SPIEGEL: Whether the German nuclear power plants are that safe, however, is controversial. In an international comparison conducted by the OECD in 1997, Biblis B does not perform particularly well, for example, with regard to the release of radioactivity during a core meltdown.

WENDLAND: I’ve taken a closer look at that study. It was not at all a “PISA study* for nuclear power plants” as the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), an anti-nuclear organization, once published. Nor did it establish a ranking of the probability of a release as a result of core meltdown. Rather, the aim of this study was to compare the safety analysis methods for nuclear power plants available at that time. The OECD authors therefore also evaluated the national safety studies, including the “German Risk Study on Nuclear Power Plants” of 1990, for which Biblis B was the reference plant. The IPPNW again picked very selectively from these quotations. Biblis B has been closed since 2011. The deficits it is accused of are not an issue at all in the current German plants, which belong to later construction lines – or they were not even in Biblis. With regard to one common indicator, core damage frequency, German plants are in the range of all Western plants of similar design and generation, in some cases they are even better. Nevertheless, development has of course continued. The new nuclear power plants built today have better safety features. The latest generation of Russian pressurised water reactors can remove the residual heat from the reactor core completely passively, that is, without electrically operated pumps. This also works in the event of a station blackout lasting several days, a situation such as that in Fukushima.

SPIEGEL: Nuklearia’s homepage says: “Most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year – and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade«. Where will we be in ten years’ time?

WENDLAND: I hope we’ll able to return to a new form of nuclear energy. We are no nostalgics for nuclear energy. We are preparers.


*PISA: OECD “Programme for International Student Assessment”

Cover photo: Dr. Anna Veronika Wendland during a research mission at the Grohnde NPP control room. On the left, the core panel with the position indications of the control rods.

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