Germany's Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant
Markus Balser

BERLIN — The problem weighs nearly 300,000 tons. Tubes, generators, a concrete containment shell. And there is a gigantic volume of steel and scrap material alone at the former atomic power station in Obrigheim in the state of Baden-Württemberg. The most dangerous work on the highly radioactive materials is done by robot.

Nine years after Germany's oldest atomic power plant closed, high-security work is still in full swing. The closure marked the start of the biggest demolition program in Germany's industrial history. Obrigheim is just the beginning. Seventeen more facilities are scheduled to follow. But Obrigheim serves to illustrate what is going to become a massive problem for the whole world over the next few years.

A new study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that the dismantling of old nuclear power stations around the globe risks becoming a huge cost risk. "Nearly 200 reactors are going to be shut down by 2040," the IEA writes in its new World Energy Outlook.

There are currently 434 nuclear facilities in operation worldwide. The Paris-based IEA estimates the cost of dismantling them at "over $100 billion." But because of limited experience with decontamination, costs can't be estimated with a high degree of accuracy, the IEA says. The wave of dismantlement, which concerns primarily Europe, the United States, Russia and Japan, could in fact cost substantially more.

In the next two and a half decades the biggest die-out of power stations in the history of atomic energy will complete itself. "Many nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their approved life cycle, and others are being closed down for political reasons," says Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist, who adds that "we've never experienced such a concentration before."

Obrigheim's nuclear plant — Photo: Felix Koenig/GFDL

Which is why the IEA is anticipating serious problems. "Only very few countries are going to be able to cope with this," Birol warns, because dismantlement is highly demanding technically and can take between 15 and 20 years depending on the facility. Governments and suppliers should already be putting the means aside to be able to meet future costs, the study says.

The urgent warning about the cost of the nuclear sector's radioactive heritage should spark debate in Germany about how to deal with companies running nuclear power plants, like Eon, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW. Energy companies would be glad to have the taxpayer bear part of the cost for the difficult dismantlement process and burial of waste.

Funding cleanup

A suggestion that became public last spring was for energy companies to place their reserves of 30 billion euros in a foundation that would assume responsibility for the dismantling of all atomic power plants, including the risks of tearing them down and burying waste. But environmental associations have refused the model out of fear that the companies' reserves would not fully cover costs.

The annual World Energy Outlook is the IEA's most important publication. In it, experts outline various scenarios about energy supply under various conditions. Despite all the risks of nuclear power stations, the organization is expecting a 60% rise in electricity production from nuclear plants. The current 392 gigawatts should grow to 620 gigawatts by 2040.

The study predicts that atomic power will continue to play a big role in the future mainly in China, Russia, Korea and India. Because the need for electricity will increase sharply, the share of atomic power in the worldwide energy mix will rise one percentage point, to 12%.

That means aggravating a problem that until now has remained unsolved. Not a single country has yet to find a permanent burial site for atomic waste, IEA expert Birol complains. The volume of burned-out fuel elements will double to 700,000 tons, the study predicts. The energy agency urges the world to devote thought to this urgently, or else "it will become one big headache."

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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