If German voters reject nuclear power then its global future looks dim
The former British chief scientific adviser says the UK should press on even faster with new nuclear power stations; the German voters say Germany should dump them altogether - and it looks as though Berlin will agree.
It is not quite as stark as that, but it is hard to underestimate the significance of what is happening in Germany over nuclear power. We may or may not build a few new stations. Sir David King's argument is that if we build the plants quickly we can use the spent fuel from existing plants to power them. But whatever you think of that argument, what the UK does or does not do will not materially affect the future of nuclear power in the rest of the developed world, let alone the emerging countries. What Germany does, however, will. It is a much larger industry and the country's reputation in nuclear power generation is less chequered than our own.
What happened at the weekend in Germany was a rejection of nuclear power. The defeat of the coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats in Baden-Württemberg elections was stunning because the region is one of the most successful, not just of Germany, but of the world. But nearly 70% of the voters cited nuclear power as the main concern and saw Chancellor Angela Merkel's sudden promise of a moratorium on new stations as a political device.
Since the vote, there have been reports of Germany extending the moratorium and coming up with an entirely new energy strategy. We will have to wait and see, but it seems a reasonable assumption that nuclear power will not play a significant role in any increase in Germany's power-generation mix. More likely, it will go into gradual decline. If Europe's largest economy steps back, who will step forward? France will try, but since it already produces 75% of its electricity from nuclear it will, at most, increase that by a small percentage.
From a global perspective it seems most probable that the impact of Fukushima will be similar to that of Chernobyl: hardly any new nuclear power stations being approved for the next 20 years. About 6% of the world's primary energy comes from nuclear. That was never going to increase by more than a few percentage points; now it will most probably fall.
So what will happen?
There have been two recent excellent studies of long-term energy needs, one from BP looking at energy in 2030, the other from HSBC looking at the position in 2050. The common theme was that the "business as usual" energy mix would bring grave difficulties and that while renewables and nuclear could make a contribution, these would not be the game-changer. Conservation would be the crucial thing that might. If we have to accept that there will be no contribution from nuclear, then we have to think even harder about conservation - and how to be sensible about that.