In the last days of May, 500 environmental protesters descended upon a new coal power plant, Datteln 4, in Germany.
The plant opened on 30 May despite the German government’s roadmap, announced this year, to have coal phased out by 2038 at the latest. And despite the average coal power plant globally having a 46 year — not 18 year — lifespan.
Electorally, Germany has one of the strongest “Green Parties” in the world. But if anything, they have contributed to coal power use in Germany today.
In 2000 a SPD-Green coalition announced a plan to phase out nuclear energy, and it has happened progressively since. In 2007, construction on Datteln 4 began. In 2011 the Fukushima nuclear accident happened in Japan, and Germany’s phase out of nuclear power was accelerated.
Net power generation, and power generation capacity, have both grown over that period. The fastest area of growth is renewables. Coal power generation has decreased, although lignite or “brown coal”, a particularly polluting type, less so than other coal. But nuclear has decreased faster. And gas has increased. Had nuclear not been decreased, coal and other fossil-fuels would likely have decreased more rapidly — or at least could have been phased out more easily.
Nuclear does not drive global warming as fossil fuels do, and is safer.
The Fukushima disaster occurred because the power plant was built in an area vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. There had been an estimated 2,202 disaster-related deaths in Fukushima, the Financial Times estimated in March 2018, “from evacuation stress, interruption to medical care and suicide; so far, there has not been a single case of cancer linked to radiation from the plant.” 60,000 people were evacuated as a result of the disaster, receiving inadequate support. The wider deathtoll from the earthquake and tsunami was estimated at 15,895.
In September 2018 one former employee’s death, by lung cancer, was attributed to radiation from the disaster. Eventual excess deaths due to radiation will likely be higher than one, but not huge. Almost five million people die every year from air pollution, much of it from fossil fuels — and the impacts of global warming will be orders of magnitude higher. Coal power stations are significant financial investments, and will not be abandoned easily by the capitalists who hope to reap their profit from them.
Due to supposed environmental policies, they are increasingly converted into gas or biomass power stations. Neither of these is a genuinely environmental option. There are currently no comparatively straightforward or cheap ways to convert coal into low-carbon power stations.
They must be dismantled, at a serious loss, cutting against the logic of a private, for-profit, energy sector. Huge public investments into expanding renewable and low-carbon energy sources are necessary.