Sunday, June 05, 2011

Germany ties its nuclear hand behind its back

A shortened version was published in The Tennessean, Sunday, June 5, 2011

by Richard J. Grant

A thousand years ago, Mongol invaders displaced the Song Dynasty, which shifted toward the south coast of China. This brought a new commercial and strategic interest in the development of sea travel. By 1132, the Emperor had established a permanent navy and devoted resources to maritime engineering. Knowledge grew, as did the number and sizes of the increasingly sophisticated sailing vessels.

By the 15th century, Chinese traders and the navy operated huge fleets of several hundred ocean-going vessels. But with the Ming Dynasty, which began around 1368, the traditionalist, Confucian bureaucracy grew in power and influence. After the death of the adventurous Emperor Zhu Di in 1424, the Chinese became increasingly bureaucratized and inward looking. The maritime expeditions by the great fleets soon came to an end. An imperial decree restricted Chinese ships to coastal waters and individuals were forbidden to travel abroad.

In the early 16th century, restrictions were placed on ship sizes and eventually the building of ocean-going vessels was forbidden. With this loss of purpose, Chinese shipyards lost the capacity to build the great ships – and knowledge of their specifications and construction died out. This, and the Confucian disdain for commerce, left the Chinese vulnerable to piracy and foreign naval powers. By the time the Portuguese trading ships arrived, the Chinese empire was already in decline.

Five hundred years later we have ships that are powered by nuclear reactors. The U.S. Navy has been one of the world's leaders in the use of nuclear energy, particularly in the application of small-reactor technology. These applications, especially in submarines, brought tremendous strategic advantages.

Energy expenditure is essential to life. The harnessing of nuclear energy, although first achieved during wartime, has enhanced our lives in a growing range of civilian applications. Since the first known man-made fission reactions in 1942, knowledge has expanded and enabled us to recognize and enjoy the benefits of a clean, energy-dense power source.

By freeing-up other resources, the development of nuclear power has increased our standard of living and has continued a centuries-long trend away from carbon-dense energy sources. People have always preferred cleaner and more-economical modes of living. And in the freest societies we were best able to apply our minds to such goals and to act on our discoveries. The same rule of law that gives us this freedom will, when applied rationally, protect us from careless use.

One hundred years ago, Germany was renowned as the place to go for training in science and technology. Repressive governments and periods of conflict caused many Germans, including some top scientists, to depart for freer lands. Knowledge and know-how were lost, at least temporarily, to those other lands.

Today Germany gets almost 23 percent of its electrical-energy supply from nuclear power. German utilities were planning to add nuclear capacity. But that was before a tsunami hit Japan and damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Popular German understanding of nuclear matters is such that polls show 70 percent of the populace opposing the use of nuclear power. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who probably knows better, has announced that all 17 of Germany's nuclear reactors will be closed by 2022.

Germans will pay more while waiting for salvation through wind and solar energy. They will lose their nuclear engineers to other lands and vocations. They will also increase their dependence on Russian oil and gas.


Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics at Lipscomb University and a senior fellow at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column appears on Sundays. E-mail: rjg@richardjgrant.com

Copyright © Richard J Grant 2011