Closing Nuclear Plants Will Be A Massive Global Mess

Germany's Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant
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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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

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"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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