20 years after Chernobyl: Wind power established as the safe, clean and cheap option
Early on the morning of 26 April 1986, the event that had been declared virtually impossible happened. The number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a core meltdown. The world’s worst nuclear accident raised serious concerns and questions about the non-military use of nuclear power. In two European countries the nuclear disaster was the main reason for increasing efforts to promote wind power and other renewables. Twenty years later, Germany and Denmark are world leaders in a €12 billion wind power industry that grows 20% annually.
Two decades ago, two factors played a decisive role in Germany and Denmark’s decisions to develop wind energy and other renewables: the Chernobyl tragedy in 1986 and the Brundtland Commission’s report in 1987 calling for “a form of sustainable development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
At a time when the entire world is remembering Chernobyl, nuclear power is back on the political agenda in some European countries but Member States remain divided. The Austrian EU Presidency opposes nuclear energy while EU citizens back renewable energy and disfavour nuclear. According to a survey from Eurobarometer published in January 2006, almost 80% of EU citizens prefer renewable energies as alternative to high-priced oil and gas imports, while nuclear is preferred by 12%.
“The difference between 1986 and today is the growing evidence of a climate crisis. The success of wind power shows that we now have real alternatives to fossil fuels that are cheaper, cleaner and safer than nuclear and based on a resource that never gets depleted. Wind power and other renewables can certainly fill the gap if we replicate the efforts of Germany, Denmark and Spain in other countries”, said Arthouros Zervos, President of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).
Two decades of technological progress have resulted in today’s wind turbines producing 180 times more electricity, at less than half the cost, than the early 1986 vintage models. Wind is now capable of delivering large amounts of power as it is already the case in the first-mover countries such as Denmark (20% of the electricity consumption), Germany (6%) and Spain (8%).
A report released last Wednesday by the British House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee concludes that renewable energy and efficiency together with an increase use of gas can fill the gap from decommissioning older coal and nuclear power stations. It states that over the next ten years, nuclear power would be insufficient to fill the need for more generating capacity or to deliver the required carbon reductions, as the nuclear plants could not be built in time. The Committee highlights the issues that need to be resolved before investing in new nuclear: “These include long term waste disposal, public acceptability, the availability of uranium, and the carbon emissions associated with nuclear. There are also serious concerns relating to safety, the threat of terrorism, and the proliferation of nuclear power around the world,” the report states.
It is worth noting that wind power has received 0.03% of all IEA government energy research expenditures since 1974, while nuclear power received 60%, or $175 billion, in the same period, according to the International Energy Agency.
According to EWEA in the last 20 years only the tip of the iceberg has been reached in terms of the true deployment potential of wind power.