Dorfman, 64, of University College London, is founder and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, a collection of experts and activists working on nuclear energy and radiation medicine, nuclear proliferation and the sustainability of energy systems.
Qvist, 34, completed his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and has since been conducting research in the U.S. and Sweden on the safety and economics of nuclear power. He currently runs an energy consultancy firm in Great Britain. He is the author of the book “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow” together with the economist Joshua Goldstein.
Qvist: There are good, factual arguments, such as nuclear power being an energy source which does not produce any greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Which has additional benefits of not being dependent on the weather. The fact that it is climate friendly is indisputably one of the main reasons we should look at nuclear power as a part of the energy system.
Dorfman:Why should anyone build a nuclear power plant? Renewables are much cheaper. The climate crisis is going to hit us hard and quicker than we planned for – but this actually speaks against nuclear power.
Dorfman:Climate change poses a number of unique challenges to humanity. One of the most difficult is that we have to be carbon neutral as soon as the middle of the century. Now, the unfortunate reality is that you could not build enough reactors fast enough even to replace the existing reactors that will reach the end of their lifetime before 2050.
DER SPIEGEL:So Germany made the right decision to phase out nuclear energy?
Dorfman:Absolutely. There is still no final repository for nuclear waste and economically viable operation is impossible. Many safety questions are unresolved. Even utilities in Germany are clear and blunt: They say they would not even consider getting back into nuclear. The only political party that is against the shutdown is the partly extreme-right-wing AfD, and AfD also denies climate change.
Qvist: To me, the German phase-out is a terrible decision, one of the worst decisions for the environment and the climate that anyone has ever made. One study shows that the phase-out led to the death of more than 1000 people every year – not even accounting for the millions of tons of CO2 that have been released. And the phase-out isn’t even done yet!
Qvist:By 2025, Germany will have spent more than 500 billion euros ($591 billion) on its energy transition. The result has been climbing prices for electricity, CO2 emissions have hardly dropped at all and Germany’s energy mix remains climate unfriendly. In 2022, when the last reactors will be decommissioned, problems will become even worse. At Germany’s rate of adding clean energy, it would take the world more than a century to decarbonize. And the existing nuclear plants in Germany are not even uneconomical. They’re wonderfully operating plants. Some of them.
DER SPIEGEL:Still, we have to decarbonize the energy system as soon as possible to prevent catastrophic consequences. How do we get there?
Qvist:The popular answer is renewables, but wind and solar alone at a reasonable system cost is a fantasy. They are becoming cheaper, but they are not available around the clock, and batteries that could power entire cities for days or weeks show no sign of materializing any time soon. But we actually have proven models for rapid decarbonization: France and my home country of Sweden decarbonized their grids decades ago – and Germany emits almost eight times as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour as France and more than 40 times as much as Sweden. But above all: over 40 percent more than the EU average.
Qvist:Use a combination of renewables and nuclear – the most cost-effective combinations you can find of all low-carbon sources. In the world today we have around 20 electricity grids that are zero-carbon year-round. More than half of those are very poor countries that have one or two big hydroelectric power plants and use very little electricity. That’s not a model anyone could follow. Then you have three or four countries with renewable systems that are based on geographical luck. Norway is a good example. They have ample hydro power. Or Iceland: They have both geothermal power in the ground and hydro power. Costa Rica is similar. But then you have four regions that are already across the finish line in terms of decarbonized power without completely relying on luck. Those four systems are Sweden, France, Switzerland and Ontario in Canada, all of them relying on a combination of renewables and nuclear.
Qvist:In every case where nuclear power was shut down, renewables have not filled the gap. Why is Germany not decarbonized, although it is going full-on with renewables? Its CO2 emissions intensity from electricity production is many times higher than that of France and Sweden, and its electricity costs to consumers are also vastly higher. You cannot find a better climate investment than maintaining and modernizing the existing European reactor fleet to keep it in operation.
DER SPIEGEL:More than 80 percent of the world’s primary energy still stems from fossil sources. Wind and the sun provide less than 2 percent. Worldwide energy consumption 30 years from now is projected to be about 50 percent higher than it is today. How can we get there?
Dorfman:We need to create a green hydrogen economy with all its components, energy efficiency, storage and interconnectivity between electric grids. The last thing that you need in such a system is nuclear, because nuclear is either on, or it is off. It is very bad at what we call load following…
Qvist: Statistically, nuclear power is the safest form of large-scale energy humanity has ever used. Mining accidents or gas explosions kill people, sometimes in large numbers, and smoke from coal-burning kills us, as I’ve mentioned before, in enormous numbers. By contrast, in about 60 years of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, and even during these catastrophic events not many people have been killed directly through radiation. I mean, we have hydroelectric power, which is a wonderful zero-carbon electricity source. But it has got a far worse safety record than nuclear. Dams burst, thousands of people have died.