Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  Germany's great energy disruption: Part 3

On a summer morning in 1988, as workers at a coal mine in Borken, in western Germany, were going about their business, they were taken aback by a thunderous explosion. It blew the roofs off three of the buildings in sight. The explosion had come from under the ground. The intensity was so great, the ground they were standing on became scorching hot within seconds. 

Something had set off 4,400 pounds of explosives stored in the underground mines at Borken. When rescue teams arrived, they found 31 bodies. But there were another 57 miners who were never found. The tragedy at Borken turned out to be one of Germany’s worst ever accidents in the energy sector.  

Unfortunately, coal mining accidents are far too common. Through world history, small scale accidents silently take the lives of miners all the time. Few mishaps find their way into newspapers. Through world history, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in coal mining accidents. In the United States alone, an astonishing 104,000 coal miners have lost their lives since 1900. In China, 62,000 coal miners lost their lives between 1996 and 2015. Germany, as we have seen, is no exception. Until recently it was the world’s 8th largest producers of coal in the world. 

The contrast with nuclear energy, which is commonly perceived to the riskiest source of energy, could not be starker. In Germany, there have been exactly zero deaths due to accidents at nuclear power plants. Even the Fukushima disaster, which sent shockwaves around the world, led to no deaths at the time of the accident. 

In fact, the gravest energy accident that has ever taken place was in the Henan province of China in August 1975. After a bout of incessant rains, the hydropower dam on Banqiao Reservoir was breached. Within hours 61 other reservoirs collapsed, killing 171,000 people in a single night. If you have not heard about this incident before that is because the Chinese government made it public only 30 years later in 2005, when it declassified secret government files.  

When deaths per unit of electricity are considered, accidents due to coal kill between 2.8 and 32.7 people per 10 billion killowatt-hour. Compared to this, deaths caused by accidents involving hydropower ranges between 1 and 54.7. However, in the case of nuclear energy accidents, deaths per unit ranges between 0.1 and 1.2.  

Ever since the commercialisation of nuclear energy as a source of power in the 1950s, the first major nuclear accident was in the year 1961 at Idaho Falls in the U.S., where 3 workers lost their lives. The next major accident was in 1979, when the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident took place in the U.S. While there were no immediate deaths in this case, a few studies have shown a long-term impact on the health of local residents due to an increased incidence of cancer, although other studies dispute these claims. 

The gravest nuclear energy accident took place in Chernobyl (now in Ukraine) in 1986. There were 30 deaths due to the accident directly, but the long-term mortality is significantly higher. The World Health Organisation estimated that there will be 9,000 long-term premature deaths due to this accident. 

The Fukushima accident, which triggered Germany’s U-turn on nuclear energy, is also expected to have a long-term impact on mortality in the region. One study predicts around 130 premature deaths attributable to the accident and another 180 cases of cancer. 

Tragically, the fear of nuclear accidents in Fukushima led to more deaths than the accident itself. Nearly 300,000 people in the Fukushima prefecture were evacuated in the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown. This displacement led to over 1,600 deaths – many of which were of senior citizens – not due to radiation but due to fatigue, illness and hospital closures. A study estimated that if there had been no mandatory evacuations, the radiation itself would have claimed between 3 to 245 lives over the next 28 years, far lower than the deaths due to evacuation.  

Like in the case of nuclear accidents, mortality figures due to accidents in fossil fuel based energy sources do not reveal the true extent of the risk involved. Much of the risk that emanate from fossil fuel sources are in the form of externalities – and they impact people at large whether or not there has been an accident. An externality is defined as a consequence of an activity that affects an entity that has not chosen to be party to that activity. 

In the case of fossil fuels, the externality in the production and consumption of energy arise from the pollutants that are produced in the process of their use, such as fine particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen oxide. 

Air pollution in its various forms can lead to lung and throat cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataracts, asthma, bronchial disease, reduced lung function and heart diseases.  

In Germany alone, air pollution – from automobiles, coal fired power plants and other sources – claims 70,000 lives prematurely every year. There are over 450,000 premature deaths annually in Europe and 6.5 million around the world. The numbers are indeed staggering. When air pollution deaths due to different sources of energy are considered along with accident deaths, coal yet again proves to be the deadliest. Coal leads to about 28 deaths per unit (terawatt-hour) of electricity, petroleum leads to about 17, natural gas to 4, and nuclear leads to nearly zero.  

In fact, when it comes to the total greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy produced, nuclear technologies fares even better than solar energy. While coal produces 888 tonnes of greenhouse gases per unit (gigawatt-hour) of electricity, natural gas produces 449, solar produces 85 tonnes and nuclear energy only 29 tonnes.  

While nuclear energy gets much of the attention due to its lack of safety, other conventional sources of energy have clearly proven, so far, to be far more hazardous to human health. The energy transition in Germany – and elsewhere – has been reasoned to be a transition away from unsafe nuclear energy and global warming causing fossil fuels, when the reality is that it is fossil fuels that have proven to be both a cause of climate change as well as risks to human health. 

The mushroom cloud 

In August 1945, when an American B-29 bomber dropped the nuclear bomb ironically named “Little Boy" on Hiroshima in Japan, it was to change the trajectory of world history. The bomb exploded about 2000 feet above the ground, sending shockwaves for miles and obliterating everything in sight. Between 90,000 and 150,000 people lost their lives in the first ever use of a nuclear weapon. The mushroom cloud that emerged was forever imprinted in the memories of those who witnessed it. 

Since then, there have been several nuclear explosions in the form of another bomb at Nagasaki and later, nuclear tests in the Cold War era. These events have been televised and have illustrated to the world the devastating impact that a nuclear bomb can have. 

Nuclear energy for peaceful purposes has forever lived in the shadow of the devastating nuclear mushroom cloud. With every following accident – be it the Three Mile Island in 1979 or Chernobyl in 1986 – people have expected the worst. The public perception of nuclear energy is largely negative. According to surveys Only 15% of Germans are ‘mainly or very’ positive about nuclear energy, compared to 40% in the U.K. On the other hand, approval rates of natural gas and hydroelectric power is 50% and 85% among Germans. Curiously, at 22% positive attitudes, more Germans prefer coal over nuclear energy, in spite of coal posing a significantly greater risk overall.  

Much like how people are more likely to fear air travel more than road travel even though the former is far safer, nuclear energy is feared more than coal even though the latter takes more lives. The reasons for the negative public perceptions towards nuclear energy are manifold. First and foremost, Germany has had a tremulous geopolitical history in the aftermath of the world wars, which has impacted the perception of nuclear energy. West and East Germany became the principal theatres of the Cold War. As the U.S. and Soviet Union rattled their nuclear sabres, Germans were well aware that their two states would be a key battleground in a potential conflict. The threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large in this period as NATO troops from the U.S., France and U.K. were equipped with nuclear weapons on German soil. 

There were many small scale nuclear reactors constructed in the 1960s in West Germany, although the first commercial operations began in 1969. In the 1970s, anti-American left-leaning student movements began equating nuclear power to capitalism and militarism. The slogan “Atomkraft? Nein Danke", which translates to, “Nuclear Power? No thank you" became popular. The slogan was accompanied with the symbol a laughing sun. This slogan and logo found its way onto T-shirts and stickers, thereby popularising the anti-nuclear sentiment. The Green Party in Germany emerged from these student movements, thereby creating a potent anti-nuclear political force.  

Future generations of Germans too have consumed mainstream anti-nuclear art and literature, such as the popular fictional book for teenagers titled “Die Wolke" (“The Cloud") published in 1987, which tells the story of a cloud of radiation following a nuclear accident at a power station within Germany. And as recently as 2011, there were violent clashes with the police, as protesters tried blocking nuclear shipments that were arriving by rail from France.  

Secondly, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the perceived risks from nuclear energy really hit home for many Germans. Parents, in particular, felt “personally threatened" when higher than normal radioactivity was measured around and in the kindergartens where their young children studied. Further, radioactivity from rain entered the food cycle. The radioactivity first entered the cycle through hay which was consumed by cows, and then into the milk that Germans bought from shops and fed themselves and their children. 

Relatedly, in erstwhile East Germany, Uranium miners and communities around mines have first-hand experience of environmental degradation in the form of sludge in water bodies and radioactive waste piles around uranium mines. An estimated 400,000 workers worked in these mines in poor safety conditions, supplying the Soviet nuclear complex. There was an increase in the incidence of lung cancer among workers in the mines. The mines were later shut down and these wastelands were later cleaned up with financing from the unified German government.  

A third reason for the German lack of appetite for nuclear energy is due to poor communication by the nuclear industry and government itself. The technology and risks from nuclear and other forms of energy have not historically been communicated to the people effectively. Take for instance in 1975, when anti-nuclear protests were taking place in Germany. 

In the run-up to the referendum in Wyhl, a nuclear engineer working for the government explained to the public that a nuclear power plant is similar to a tea pot. “You pour water in, and steam comes out the top. And see, nothing else happens", he said, to an unconvinced audience, some of who had already done a bit of their own research. Naturally, this created distrust between the two groups. 

Amusingly, elsewhere in Menzenschwand in the Black Forest, supporters of uranium mining in the 1960s argued that a “radioactive spa" could be created in the region using radon, which they claimed had health benefits. There were even radioactive chocolate bars available called ‘Burkbraun Radium Schokolade’, and the manufacturers claimed that it made people younger. 

Lies, damned lies, and Chernobyl. All have helped to create an aversion in Germany towards nuclear power. Over the years, people realised these health benefits do not hold and naturally, the distrust of the nuclear industry and government support of it continued. 

In a study published in 1992 on the aftermath of Chernobyl, scholars Alexander Shlyakhter and Richard Wilson aptly wrote, “Bureaucrats in all countries like to hide their incompetence and lack of understanding in secrecy. The justification ‘the people will not understand’ often means that the bureaucrat does not understand." 

Siddharth Singh, a researcher of energy and the economy, wrote this series of articles as a German Chancellor fellow and a visiting fellow at the Wuppertal Institute in Berlin. His Twitter handle is @siddharth3

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