Tag Archives: nuclear power plants

I just received this: Apparently the left wing party in Saarland, Germany, wants to know whether fewer girls are being born around nuclear power plants. Scientifically, there seems to be some evidence that the X-Chromosome gets destroyed quite easily even at already low levels of radiation. The politician who demands this is called Ensch-Engel, and he basically said that (liberally translated): „Because of the closeness to the nuclear power plant Cattenom, it is possible that the gender distribution in Saarland may be subject to alarming changes.“

I live in Luxembourg, which is as close to Cattenom as the German region Saarland, and oddly more girls have been born in my group of friends than boys. Clearly, this is unlikely to be a representative sample, but a quick analysis of the children below one year living in the German regions around Cattenom is enlightening. I find it surprising that a politician cannot do this himself, it took me like 10 minutes. In any case, here are the results.

Basically, in the whole of Germany, 51.27% of children below one year are boys. In Saarland, respectively Merzig-Wadern or Saarlouis, the German regions closest to Cattenom, this number is 51.82, 51.57 and 52.08. Now, I would not call these numbers alarming, but they are marginally higher. If we take a 99% confidence interval of all regions in Germany, then this amounts from 51.05 to 51.5. Each of the regions with close proximity to Cattenom is above this confidence interval, which basically means that, statistically speaking, it is likely that fewer girls are born close to Cattenom.

As a disclaimer, this number is very small. In addition, it could still be due to other statistical irregularities or effects.

Still, a quick check with google shows that this is apparently not only the case around Cattenom, but also across many different regions that are close to nuclear power plants in various countries, see e.g. HERE.  While I would really advice noone to call this difference alarming in any sense, the worrying question is still: Assume radiation reduces the number of girls being born. Then this means that the radiation, despite it being more than 50km away from nuclear plants and being thus really minuscule, still has an impact on our DNA. I would call this the worrying issue! Who knows what else it then may impact…

Persons below 1 year (source: Regionalstatistik Germany)
Total Percent
Total boys girls boys girls
Germany 663026 339973 323053 51.2760 48.7240
Saarland 7062 3660 3402 51.8267 48.1733
Merzig-Wadern, Landkreis 795 410 385 51.5723 48.4277
Saarlouis, Landkreis 1390 724 666 52.0863 47.9137
boys girls
99% Confidence upper 51.5048 48.9528
Interval lower 51.0472 48.4952


This post concerns Hinkley Point C and the subsidies the UK government wishes to provide Electricité de France with in order to build and run it for the next years.

Paul Dorfman, Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL Energy Institute and founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group, just sent this:

The European Commission has opened an in-depth inquiry to examine whether UK State Aid for the construction and operation of two new nuclear power plants at Hinkley Point C in Somerset are in line with EU legislation.

We conclude that the proposed UK government State Aid for new nuclear is incompatible with EC Legislation, does not represent a genuine ‘Service of General Economic Interest’ under Art 107(1) TFEU, will distort the European energy market, is neither transparent nor proportionate, will not make a timely contribution to UK security of supply or decarbonisation, and will not contribute to affordability, price stability and least-cost for the UK energy consumer.

An in-depth analysis of why a very large set of key UK and pan-EU energy policy and civil society stakeholders come to this conclusion is provided in THIS PDF DOCUMENT which I advice any interested reader or policy maker to go through. Thanks to Paul for this very important contribution!

Nuclear energy, its further development, and obviously its safety are the topics these days. Not only due to Fukushima, but also due to the shutdowns as a result of Germany’s Energiewende, and furthermore due to UK’s recent plan to build of one of the largest and most expensive nuclear power plants in the world (using a contract that puts all the risk on the tax payer and none on the operator, see discussions by Paul Dorfman HERE, by Peter Kirby HERE, and more generally HERE).

Interestingly, for the UK nuclear plans at Hinkley Point, it is international pressure that is currently putting up concerns and barriers. For example, the UN feels that there is a ““profound suspicion” that the UK failed to properly consult neighbouring countries, including Norway and Spain, over the possible environmental impact that Hinkley Point C could have on them.” Consequently, nuclear policies should not only be viewed as a national issue, but most definitely as an international one due to the potential spillovers to neighbouring countries, or even the whole world.

While we should be worried about the plans to increase nuclear energy in some countries, we should also not forget that some countries are still running really ancient plants with minimal safety standards that apparently fail any currently accepted international technology standard.

Obviously, if we build new plants, invest billions in order to make these somewhat safe at least according to the currently available technology, but at the same time neglect those old ticking nuclear time bombs, then we may nevertheless see an increasing number of accidents in the future.

The lack of investments in older plants has recently been forcefully discussed by Vladimir Kuznetsov (Professor at the Arkhangelsk Arctic State University and previously an engineer in Reactor 3 in Chernobyl until the accident) in front of the Commission for Environmental protection and nuclear safety in the German Bundestag.

Professor Kuznetsov said that there are many more nuclear power plants in Russia of the same type as the one of Chernobyl, and these nuclear power plants have no uniform safety standards and are aging virtually without safety investments. Since the Russian government does not provide finances to shut down these plants or decomission them, they are still being used for energy production.

If a country does not possess the finances to adequately improve the safety standards of its nuclear industry which may lead to possibly widespread international disasters, then common sense would dictate that this country should not run nuclear power plants in the first place. This is like saying: Look, if you have no driving license then you must not drive. I think everyone nowadays accepts this principle. This should especially hold for nuclear energy, which may lead to an accident of a much more massive scale.

The question is: What to do?

Two possibilities come to mind:

1) Further development of insurance to allow compensation in case of a disaster

2) Increased international cooperation to improve safety standards

While an increased development of insurance is certainly important, it is only an ex post measure. Furthermore, while in general insurance may also raise the incentives to increase investments in safety, this is not going to be the case in countries that are financially constrained and are anyway unable to invest in safety.

As a consequence, the only reasonable means by which it may be possible to effectively reduce the probability of a disaster in this case is international cooperation. One issue here is obviously moral hazard: If a poor country knows that it does not have the finances to improve its aging nuclear sector but it can count on foreign finances, then why should this country undertake safety improvements at all? Knowing that the international community will come to its help, it may even reduce investments in nuclear safety and instead spend the money on other problems.

Thus, a simple international principle should be: If your disaster is also our concern (due to international spillovers), then so is your safety!

An approach along these lines is followed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In its Convention on Nuclear Safety, the main treaty that covers international cooperation when it comes to issues of nuclear safety, they however wrote

The Convention is an incentive instrument. It is not designed to ensure fulfillment of obligations by Parties through control and sanction but is based on their common interest to achieve higher levels of safety which will be developed and promoted through regular meetings of the Parties.

Furthermore, one of the articles is that the signatories are

“Reaffirming that responsibility for nuclear safety rests with the State having jurisdiction over a nuclear installation;”

Again, it should be emphasized that if a potential disaster transcendents international borders, then the responsability lies with the state the operator of the nuclear plant is in, yes, but the costs are also born by the neighbouring states!

So while it is certainly important to improve the international insurance framework, much more priority should be placed on international cooperation, with a clearer notion of how international spillovers need to be handled and evaluated in and for Cost-Benefit Analyses of new projects (like Hinkley Point in UK) and older plants.  This should be done in a way such that next time when Professor Kuznetsov visits the Bundestag he can give a less worrisome speech.

20km and 30km impact radius around Cattenom nuclear plant, France
(Source: )

So imagine the following setting. A country needs to decide on the location for a new nuclear power plant. It furthermore knows that, in case of a nuclear incident, a part of its country will be uninhabitable for quite a long time. Hence, in order to minimize national damages, the best non-cooperative strategy is, obviously, to place the nuclear plant somewhere along its borders, at a place where, furthermore, wind direction takes a nuclear cloud away from one’s country, and along a water stream which leads contaminated water outside of the country.

A really perfect example for this strategic, non-cooperative behavior is the French nuclear plant Cattenom, which the French decided to place virtually on the border to both Luxembourg and Germany. This nuclear power plant fits all of the three above named criteria extremely well. Firstly, it is placed as close as possible on the French border; secondly, the wind direction tends to come from the south-west, taking a potential nuclear cloud into Germany and Luxembourg and away from France; thirdly, the nuclear plant takes its water from the river Mosel, which, from Cattenom, flows north, through Germany into the river Rhine, then through Netherlands into the North Sea, and its waters are basically never seen again by the French.

Why focus on Cattenom here? Well, there are clearly more nuclear power plants with similar characteristics, like Fessenheim, or various Swiss or even German power plants, but because Cattenom is so “perfectly” placed for France, it gives rise to some further strategies for the French. (By the way – a power plant with similar characteristics and issues is the Czech plant Temelin, just 70km off the German border.)

Thus, let’s talk more about economic incentives now. Imagine you build a nuclear power plant at the heart of France, in Paris. For obvious reasons the French government did not do this, but simply imagine it would. In that case you would make absolutely sure that this is going to be safest nuclear plant ever built, with constant supervision, surveillance and repairing parts even before they have the chance to break down. The reason for this is that the disaster costs to you as a country would be incredibly high, and you would simply not want to take the chance of an incident that might devastate your country.

The closest nuclear plant to Paris is the Nogent nuclear plant, 120km south-east of Paris. This plant was build at nearly the same time as Cattenom. In its 30 year history, there was one INES 1 incident (in 2005), where someone accidently sprayed water on some electric cables, but otherwise nothing happened. You would obviously expect that this nuclear plant, though sufficiently far away from Paris, may still affect France to a significant degree, and consequently you would undertake everything in your power to make this plant as safe as possible. The low number of incidents obviously supports this view.

On the converse, let’s return now to Cattenom. Unfortunately, no nuclear power plant has such a bad history (apart of those that exploded…). The official ASN list of incidents at Cattenom, only for the years 2000 till 2008, includes 88 incidents, around 13 of which were INES 1, and one was ranked as INES 2. In 2012, the ASN report counts 47 incidents, the annual maximum of any nuclear reactor so far. There were repeated incidents of reactor building evacuations, shutdowns of reactors, and workers were repeatedly exposed to radiation. In addition, power transformers caught fire several times, and 58 cubic liters of hydrochlorid acid ended up in the Mosel river and the surrounding earth in June 2013 (EDF, the operator, only informed the public three weeks after this incident). Despite all these incidents, the French government decided, in September 2013, to extend the shutdown date of Cattenom to 2045.

Disclaimer: This is obviously not sufficient proof that all nuclear power plants that are built in a favourable location are less safe than others. Nevertheless, at least the evidence for Cattenom seems to point in that direction. One would, obviously, have to undertake a proper study to be able to fully support this view. (I am currently in the process of doing just that. Contact me for any questions.)

7th June 2013 – Cattenom burning

Neither Luxembourg nor Germany are reaping any economic benefits from Cattenom, but instead are likely to bear a brunt of the costs from a nuclear disaster. There are approx. 11 million people living around Cattenom, mostly in Germany and Luxembourg, and the Cattenom no merci initiative found out that it takes only roughly 15min for a nuclear cloud to pass over to cities in adjacent Germany. 15 minutes – not even enough time to start thinking about evacuations. Plus, with Luxembourg’s main city and its south being within the 30km radius of Cattenom, a nuclear disaster will wipe Luxembourg virtually off the maps. As a result, it is understandable that there is a strong lobby in both countries that tries to press France to shut down the plant.

However, as clearly stated by the French mayor Betrand Mertz who is responsible for the area around Cattenom, Cattenom is a French nuclear plant and, consequently, both Germany and Luxembourg have no say as to whether and when it is supposed to be shut down. It is subject to both French law and regulation, as well as French security standards. Since the nuclear operator EDF, or its largest shareholder, the French government, earns around one billion Euros from Cattenom every year, plus it provides several thousand jobs, plus Cattenom delivers around 8% of the French electricity supply, then it is clear that incentives for the French government to close that plant are low. Also, as the accident reports show and discussed above, French incentives for investments to maximize safety are lower than if that plant were to be in the middle of Paris. Hence, France can produce electricity cheaper in Cattenom than anywhere else.

So how should this situation be treated, then?

1. It is certainly an international conflict that arises due to non-cooperative behavior. It would be in both Germany’s and Luxembourg’s best interest to cooperate on the nuclear plant, but would this be in the best interest for France, too? For example, partial cooperation would not do the job. E.g. if Germany/Luxembourg were to take care of safety, since this is their main concern, then France would simply stop investing in safety measures and the costs would fall on Germany/Luxembourg. On the converse, it would not be in France’s best interest to cooperate fully, since France is currently benefiting from reduced safety expenditure but reaping all the profits. In the case of cooperation, Germany/Luxembourg would demand higher investments in safety, of which they would pay a part, but France would have to share the profits of the plant, too. Consequently, it is unlikely that France would give up its sovereignty over the plant. Seems like a dead end here.

2. As far as I know, both Germany and Luxembourg are importing nuclear energy from France, and most likely from Cattenom. I am unsure of the exact amount. If both countries were stopping imports from Cattenom, would this have an effect on profitability in Cattenom? Most likely only a small one, but an adverse on safety. Smaller profits from Cattenom may imply lower investments in safety. It is unlikely that Cattenom would be closed, even if both Germany and Luxembourg are currently importing a significant fraction of the electricity produced in Cattenom, since very little electricity (roughly 5% on the 350km) were to be lost if e.g. more electricity were to be transported from e.g. Cattenom to Paris. As Cattenom is cheaper to run than other plants in the centre of Paris (due to laxer safety measures), this will not avoid Cattenom from continuing to produce electricity.

3. As a result, we are thus dealing with a true international externality from France imposed upon Germany/Luxembourg, and Germany/Luxembourg can really do nothing against this. Furthermore, we have the issue of asymmetric information on the part of EDF, where, as discussed above, not always all relevant information are leaked immediately. Thus, this may give a further rise to moral hazard, where vital information may be suppressed and used to the (financial) advantage of EDF/France.

4. It is clear that this issue can only be resolved at the European Union level. Since this problem is faced by several countries in Europe, there is a need for an international debate. Some debate already started on the insurance of nuclear plants across Europe. But this will not seriously affect the investments in safety, especially because there is a move towards more internationalization of disaster costs, since it is well-known that a disaster may exceed a nuclear operator’s insurance, its capital, and its country’s budget (as e.g. Fukushima has vividly shown). Thus, an internationalization of costs reduces, yet again, incentives to invest in safety.

5. As a result, what is needed is a debate on the safety standards in excess of what is being done in response to e.g. the recent stress tests. For example, the nuclear authority in France, ANS, in response to the 2012 results of the stress tests for Cattenom, declared that “the nuclear power plants have a sufficient level of safety, such that none needs to be shut down immediately. Nevertheless, a prolonged use of the plants requires to increase safety margins for extreme situations.” This is saying something like: We acknowledge that there are issues and we will take care of some, but this does not warrant overhasty actions like shutdown of plants. One would, of course, expect this course of decision. However, it must also be said that this decision cannot be derived from the results of the stress tests, since the stress tests have “… not assessed the current safety level of the European NPPs, but only the potential increased safety level which should have been achieved in the next decade… The EU stress test has no direct effect on the European nuclear power plant fleet. Even the oldest plant which have obvious deficiencies in defence …, apply for life time extension, and [European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group] has no mandate to stop this process.”  (source)

6. One solution is obviously the following: Assume the European Union manages to come out with a new regulation that says: If you want to build a nuclear power plant, then build it inside your own country’s centre, as this will maximize your safety efforts. However, it is unlikely that such a solution would ever be accepted by countries that build new plants. Who would ever want to exposure one’s country fellows to such hazards?

Furthermore, this is not going to lead to increased safety expenditure on those plants that are already built. One solution would thus be if the International Atomic Energy Agency provides strict regulations as to what safety standards a nuclear plant should fulfil, and link those standards to the best available technology. This would at least be a partial solution, in the sense that we are less likely to see reduced safety expenditure on nuclear plants that are built on borders with advantageous wind and river flow directions.

Further resources:

Ökostrom in Luxembourg:

Ökostrom im Saarland:

I have a new working paper out, it is entitled “An Empirical Study of the Determinants of Green Party Voting“. (download: ATP_5_2013)
In this paper I empirically study the determinants of individuals’ green voting behavior. I suggest that voting behavior is a less biased variable than commonly-used measures like willingness-to-pay and may be a better proxy for characterizing environmental attitudes. I make use of three datasets from Germany, a panel dataset and two cross-sectional datasets. The empirically strongest determinants are the voters’ attitude or distance to nuclear sites, the level of schooling and the net income. I show that those voters with deviant attitudes or alternative world views are more likely to vote green, a result of the fact that the green party has always had the position of a protest party. I find little role for demographic variables like sex, marital status or the number of children. This is in contrast to the stated preference literature. Age plays a role for explaining voting behavior only insofar as it proxies for health.

I’d be very happy about any comments! Private or public, give it a shot! Thanks!

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