"Nuclear power?" - "No, thanks!" How Germany is changing its energy system
When my friends in Germany want to throw away a tea bag, they tear it in half: paper - into one basket, and biological waste - into another... "There must be Ordnung in everything," - they say, that is order... But it becomes much more complicated when it is not usual household waste, such as the mentioned tea bag, but radioactive waste from nuclear power plants...
Five years ago, the energy policy in Germany came to a turning point: the Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would completely abandon nuclear power and all nuclear power plants would have been closed by 2022. Germany was prompted to this decision by the accident at Fukushima nuclear reactor. These days mark five years since the tsunami disaster in Japan. The German government set an ambitious goal: by 2050, the share of renewable energy in the overall energy sector must be at least 85 percent. Now it is 25 percent (for comparison, in Ukraine the percentage of renewable or "green" energy is only 2 per cent). But for the successful implementation of the energy revolution, Germany has to solve another problem: they need to do something with their radioactive "tea bag" with wastes from nuclear power plants. And this problem is extremely complicated, because currently, there is no permanent shelter for radioactive waste in Germany or in other European countries.
Deeper under ground
"Careful. Stay away from the levers" - a worker of the Asse mine in the German state of Lower Saxony warns. The main elevator goes down the shaft at 14 meters per second, and here immediately start feeling your stomach and everything that is in it... With every meter down, it becomes warmer. Somewhere in the depths of the planet, its hot core is burning. Here, in the disused Asse salt mine, you begin to feel its warmth... In the 60s and 70s, salt mining in the mine was discontinued, instead they began bringing radioactive waste in special containers there. Back then, they thought that salt helps to keep radiation in. In the 70s, there were ambitious plans for using nuclear power in Germany, such as radioactive aircraft engines and nuclear reactors in almost every big city. No one was really thinking about the radiation hazard at that time. Waste from nuclear power plants was to be kept in salt mines, such as Asse - away from human eyes, sunlight and water. But, as always, something went wrong: rocks cracked, the pressure on the sealed cave, where the containers with radioactive waste are stored, increased. Accordingly, the threat of contact of water with radioactive material increased too. This, in turn, meant that radiation could find its way into everything that surrounds us...
"This is a new challenge for us," - Ingo Bautz, the Head of the Information Department of the Asse mine says. - "In the 60s, scientists had completely different vision of nuclear energy. When containers were brought here, no one believed that what never should have happened - the ingress of water into the storage - might actually happen. Now we have to take out dozens of containers and transport them to safety. It is a very complicated process. We are now at the preparation stage. If all goes well, only in 2025 we will be able to begin taking out all hazardous containers."
There are always people in the mine. Almost one kilometer underground, at +30 degrees, people are monitoring the mine and pumping out water. It is a hard but well paid job. Among more than a hundred workers, there are only a few women. Geologist Dami Kemmler has been working in the mine for about 20 years. She is required to carry a personal dosimeter and take special radioactive contamination test every day.
"As a woman, I feel very well here, - the geologist laughs. - Men treat women underground especially well. It is a hard work. Of course, women with manicured hands do not belong here. There are many varoius devices which I must check. The work requires constant attention. But it's so great to be able to watch geological processes."
Geological processes, that are not visible to the eye, constantly take place in the depths of the planet. Layers of salt in the earth remind of the seas and oceans, which have long been gone... When asked about her health, Frau Kemmler replies with a smile:
"For all the time that I have been working here, I have never observed dangerous level of radiation. It is very clean here."
Yet, in the area of the Asse mine, doctors note an increased leukemia disease statistics. There is no evidence that it is related to radiation. Nevertheless, the community want radiation waste to be taken somewhere far away. By 2025, when the work on the transportation of containers will begin, Germany should decide on the new place of storage. The main question is where is this place?
Green men and separatism in Germany
Gorleben is a small village in Lower Saxony. There are disused salt mines there too, and Gorleben had to become a permanent deep storage of radioactive waste. But in 1980, "green" men appeared there and proclaimed the nuclear energy free Republic of Wendland. The Republic was proclaimed right at the place where the construction of the storage was to begin. More than 100 thousand people took part in mass protests, and these protests are still ongoing. The government was forced to make concessions. Green activists cautiously talk about their successes.
"Our NGO has over a thousand members. All work for free. We constantly struggle against the construction of radioactive waste storage here" - Wolfgang Emke, the chairman of Gorleben public association for environment protection says.
"Only now we can talk about some successes. But it took Chernobyl and Fukushima. Only after the tragic events, the government made concessions."
The phenomenon of German green men can be a subject of sociologists' research. The idea of green energy united people - a kind of German anti-nuclear Maidan. For thirty years, activists have been conducting their own research, constantly protesting against the storage of radioactive waste. Hundreds of people came to Gorleben to live and to protest. For some of them perpertual protest became the meaning of life. Every Thursday, members of the NGO meet in the village cafe to talk about the next plan of action.
"I have been protesting for over 20 years every week - a teacher Uli Kulman says over coffee in the village cafe. - All residents of our village always take part in all rallies, and no matter if it is spring or summer, when it's time to gather the harvest. Everyone understands that this is danger. The protest has become part of our lives. And we have succeeded - most likely, storage will not be built here. We proved that this is not the safest place for nuclear production. The government must find another place."
Big local landowner, Count Bernstorf also supported the protesters. He refused to sell his land to the government for expansion and construction of the storage.
But if the storage is not in the Asse mine or in Gorleben, where is it going to be? After all, naturally, no community would like to have a radioactive waste storage in the neighbourhood... Could it be in Russia, Kazakhstan, or even Ukraine? - we asked Johan Flaschbart, the Secretary of the Federal Ministry of the Environment.
"No. The storage of radioactive waste must be in Germany. It can not be in any other country, such as Russia. At least, this opinion is dominating now. We have to control the place where our waste is kept. We are responsible for them. This is our philosophy. Imagine: the warranty for the storage facility must be for a million years! In fact, we can not know what will happen even in a thousand years... But no one can say yet where in Germany that place is going to be."
Alternatives to nuclear energy: kindergarten as a power station
"This kindergarten produces electricity," - Daniel Mende, the head of Schoenborn village in Brandenburg says and shows a kindergarten, the roof of which is covered with solar panels.
"The kindergarten produces electricity during almost an entire year. Everything depends on the sun. And then, they sell the electricity to the common grid and buy it back, but at a special, very favorable tariff."
The power station kindergarten is only one example of alternative energy in Germany. Everyone who comes to Germany for the first time, notices hundreds of wind turbines across the country. The concept of "Energiewende" or "energy revolution" has become a national idea.This word is often used in speeches of politicians. It is used in the media. The government plan to reduce energy consumption, provide better insulation of houses, increase the number of electric vehicles by 2050. But for now Germany is still dependent on energy purchases from Russia.
"We are still very dependent on Russian gas," - energy expert Gerd Rosenkranz shares his thoughts - Currently, 90 percent of the Russian gas purchased is used for heating of buildings. The aim of the energy revolution is to reduce this percentage to zero in 2050".
Different countries perceive the so-called "energy revolution" in Germany differently: France and Britain, who are active users of nuclear energy in Europe, are following the actions of Germany with interest, while in Russia, they sarcastically called the German energy revolution "a curious experiment" apparently for fear of losing their customer. But, no matter what, everything that is now happening in the energy sector in Germany is important for the world, because if the German experiment is successful, others will follow it. If not, the mankind will continue cutting the branch they sit on.
And what about Ukraine?
Now the share of renewable energy in Ukraine is only 2 percent. By 2020, it is expected to rise to 11 percent. The share of nuclear power, due to coal supply crisis, is 55 percent. According to the Energy Strategy of Ukraine, nuclear power should prevail in the overall energy sector until 2030. Ukraine ranks fourth in the world (!) in terms of the amount of radioactive waste. There is no permanent storage for it in Ukraine.
Tea in bags is much cheaper than natural, high-quality tea. The time for brewing of such tea is just one minute. When other countries are already deciding what to do with unwanted used bags of radioactive waste, we in Ukraine are just brewing a new cup of tea...
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