The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that nuclear reactors could supply around 25 percent of the world’s electricity with almost zero carbon emissions. In terms of CO2 emissions and overall efficiency, nuclear power is the best game in town.
— Ben Shepherd, Global ETF Profits
This past Monday (May 30th) German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats would end all nuclear power by 2022. As the fourth-largest economy in the world and Europe’s largest, this decision is a big deal. Specifically:
- The seven oldest plants (pre-1980) that were temporarily shut down after the Japan nuclear disaster pending safety reviews will never re-open
- The Kruemmel plant in northern Germany, which has been shut down for years because of technical problems, will also never re-open
- Six more will go offline in 2021
- The three most modern plants will cease operations in 2022.
Nuclear power currently accounts for 23% of Germany’s entire energy production, so replacing such a large amount of energy over the next decade won’t be easy. The days of Germany as a net energy exporter are over. The country will have to construct new coal and gas-fired power plants, increase purchases of coal from Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as buy more natural gas from Russia. In addition, Germany will have to purchase electricity from neighboring countries, including nuclear-powered electricity from France.
The German government claims that it is still committed to reducing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2 ) by 40% no later than 2020, but I find this goal virtually impossible now that nuclear will have to be replaced with new fossil fuel energy sources. I also am skeptical of the government’s 2020 goals of reducing total electricity usage by 10% and increasing the country’s share of renewable energy sources to 35% of total energy production from its current 17%. Easier said than done.
German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen calls the 2022 nuclear phase-out decision “irreversible,” but c’mon, nothing is irreversible in a democracy. Although Italy renounced nuclear power back in 1987 and Switzerland has committed to a complete nuclear shut-down by 2034, most other European countries were quick to criticize Germany’s announcement. Sweden, which gets 50% of its power from nuclear, called Germany’s decision “regrettable” and “unrealistic” if Germany is serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. France, which gets 80% of its power from nuclear, said that “Germany will be even more dependent on fossil fuels and imports and its electricity will be more expensive and polluting.”
Just nine months ago in September 2010, Merkel had pushed through a 14-year extension of nuclear power because she argued it was needed as a “bridge technology” until renewable energy sources were sufficiently cost-effective. Her flip-flop is not based on science or rationality, but is purely political, based on the fact that 70% of the German public opposes nuclear power and her Christian Democrat party lost control of the southwest state of Baden-Württemberg in March for the first time since 1953. Once Germans start paying much higher prices for electricity, their opposition to nuclear power will miraculously soften. Just look at Italy.
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