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Haven’t Germans heard there’s a war on?
With Europe scrambling for alternatives to Russian fossil fuels, Germany’s insistence on sticking with a plan to shut down its three remaining nuclear power plants by the end of this year baffles many outside the country.
Berlin has warned of severe economic damage in the event of a sudden stop to Russian natural gas deliveries, which, two months into the war in Ukraine, still account for 40 percent of Germany’s imports.
This dependence on Russia has revived discussion about Germany’s attitude to nuclear power. Some politicians, particularly on the center right, have suggested the phaseout should be delayed. In Belgium, the government did just that last month, extending the lifetime of two reactors beyond the planned 2025 exit.
The war also prompted the government to run an assessment in March on whether Germany should and could delay the phaseout.
But Berlin concluded it’s not worth it — pointing to a veritable smorgasbord of technical, legal, political and cultural hurdles.
How much gas could Germany save with nuclear power?
Three nuclear power plants remain active — down from 17 in 2011 — and they’re scheduled for decommissioning at the end of this year.
Three other plants closed at the end of 2021 and are in the early stages of shutdown. All other plants are being dismantled, and can’t just be switched back on: The containment building of the Isar 1 site in Bavaria, for example, is already being taken apart. Any realistic discussion about delaying the phaseout centers around the final six.
The six nuclear power plants generated 12 percent of German electricity last year; the final three produce about 5 percent.
But the vast majority of German gas consumption can’t be swapped for nuclear in the short term. About half of German households heat with gas — and a gas boiler can’t run on electricity alone. Industry accounts for more than a third of overall gas use, and much of that is hard to replace.
Gas-fired power plants generate about 15 percent of electricity, but even those can’t all be replaced by other sources in the short term.
That means nuclear power could only replace a small fraction of Russian gas.
Every little bit counts — what’s stopping Germany?
Let’s start with the three offline plants. Restarting those is “out of the question,” according to the March assessment compiled by the economy and environment ministries, which are responsible for energy policy and nuclear safety, respectively. Both are led by the Greens, a party rooted in the anti-nuclear movement.
That’s because their operating permits have expired. The ministries warn that a restart license would be the legal equivalent of issuing a permit for a new power plant. That means launching a lengthy bureaucratic process — not conducive to a speedy exit from Russian gas.
Concerning the three active plants, here too lurk legal dangers and bureaucratic hurdles. Given the looming phaseout, they haven’t undergone required security checks in more than a decade, for example.
According to the government, there are also issues with a lack of trained staff as most are meant to switch jobs or retire at the end of the year — and, crucially, potential fuel shortages.
Is Germany running out of nuclear fuel?
Yes — and that was the plan. The phaseout schedule has been clear for a decade, meaning operators bought just enough uranium fuel rods to make it to the end of 2022.
Berlin says they could stretch supplies into March 2023, but that doing so wouldn’t produce more electricity as the plants would have to use less fuel over the summer. To keep the reactors running past spring, they need new fuel elements, which the government says take 12 to 15 months to produce.
The nuclear industry association Kerntechnik Deutschland (KernD) disagrees with Berlin’s take. A stretch-out operation could generate some additional power, it argues, especially if renewables generate surplus power this summer, allowing nuclear fuel to be conserved for a potential gas crunch this winter. As for new supplies, the association believes a sufficient quantity could be in place as early as winter.
It’s also worth noting that the second-biggest supplier of uranium to the EU is Russia — but KernD says “suitable alternatives are available.”
Mark Hibbs, a Germany-based senior fellow with Carnegie’s nuclear policy program, said buying nuclear fuel outside a regular years-long order cycle is tricky but possible, though it would come with a “premium price.”
Are the operators on board with an extension?
The three remaining plants are each run by a different company, which all declined to answer questions in detail.
A spokesperson for RWE said extending the operation of its Emsland plant in Lower Saxony would come with “high obstacles” related to technical matters and legal issues. Its Gundremmingen plant, which went offline in 2021, “has lost its operating authorization and is in the process of being safely dismantled.”
EnBW, which runs the Neckarwestheim plant in Baden-Württemberg, said it was “fully committed” to Germany’s phaseout decision.
E.ON has also ruled out an extension of its Isar 2 site in Bavaria. “There is no future for nuclear in Germany, period,” CEO Leon Birnbaum told the Financial Times this month. “It is too emotional. There will be no change in legislation and opinion.”
Is this all the Greens’ fault?
The Greens, one of three parties in Germany’s current government, have played a key role in shaping policy and public opinion on nuclear — but responsibility and support for the phaseout is shared across all mainstream parties.
Founded in 1980, the Greens have their roots in the anti-nuclear movement and want a “world without nuclear power.” A decision to delay the phaseout would certainly be far harder for them than any other political group — and they’re holding the key ministries and agencies involved in any such decision.
Their rise increased pressure on governments to move away from nuclear, and Berlin took the initial decision to wind down all plants by 2022 in the early 2000s, when the Greens were part of a coalition led by the Social Democrats.
Former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative-liberal government tried to delay the exit by a decade in 2010, triggering massive protests, before reversing course after the 2011 Fukushima accident and enshrining the phaseout in law.
Michael Kruse, energy policy spokesperson of the liberal Free Democrats — a pro-business party that’s part of the current ruling coalition and has no ideological distaste for nuclear — said the debate around delaying the phaseout or investing in new plants was “not future-oriented,” adding that renewables were cheaper, faster and more sustainable.
To reduce Russian gas imports in the short term, Germany’s government is preparing to temporarily burn more coal, which Kruse said was a better option than relying on nuclear.
The government could consider extending the remaining reactors’ runtime for a few months, he said, but “if I, as a member of parliament, were asked if I would rather let a coal plant that has had a safety checkup run longer or a nuclear plant that hasn’t been checked, then I would vote for the coal plant.”
More coal? That sounds terrible for the planet.
Berlin still plans to phase out coal by 2030, “ideally,” and is betting on renewables and hydrogen in the long term. But replacing gas-fired electricity with far dirtier coal power inevitably produces more emissions.
“That’s why this can and must only be a temporary measure,” said Manfred Fischedick, vice president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and one of the authors of last month’s U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Still, he says the coal plan is a “legitimate” measure — as long as the current crisis “leads to the acceleration of the energy transition as a whole.”
In some countries, climate change has moved nuclear power into the spotlight as a low-carbon energy source capable of generating electricity when there’s not enough sun and wind.
The International Energy Agency considers nuclear an “essential foundation” of the energy transiton, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe last year labeled nuclear phaseouts a “setback” for efforts to fight climate change.
German scientists, politicians and activists tend to disagree. Fischedick merely says Germany should have deployed renewables faster to exit coal and nuclear in parallel.
“The decision to end nuclear power was nevertheless the correct decision as it was also the decision to start the energy transition,” he said, as the phaseout announcement spurred unprecedented investment in wind and solar technologies.
Why are Germans so weird about nuclear?
In Germany, “nuclear energy has always been associated with war,” said Miranda Schreurs, a professor of climate and energy politics at the Technical University of Munich. “Whether that’s the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Germany’s own search for nuclear capacities during World War II, and also because of the Cold War situation in Germany.”
That created a groundswell of opposition long before Chernobyl and the Greens’ foundation. But the 1986 Soviet-era accident turbocharged the anti-nuclear movement.
“That’s a memory that stays with people, if you remember that you can’t let your children play outside because you’re scared of radioactivity,” said Schreurs. “And the government always made the argument, well, that was the Soviet Union, their technology wasn’t as sophisticated as ours. But then Fukushima happened.”
Post-Fukushima, Germany’s nuclear phaseout has become cross-party consensus. Only the far-right Alternative for Germany occasionally campaigns for an exit from the exit.
Still, recent polling suggests Germans might be more flexible than politicians give them credit for. A March survey found that 70 percent said the phaseout should be postponed in light of the country’s dependence on Russia. Other recent surveys put that number lower — between 61 percent and 53 percent — but still found a majority in favor.
However, majorities backing solar and wind are much larger. Up to 92 percent say Germany should accelerate the rollout of renewables to achieve energy independence.
Hibbs, the Carnegie fellow, believes if the government really wanted to, the technical hurdles could be overcome. “If there were a political will to do it, they could probably figure it out.”
But Schreurs says the political risks in Germany are not trivial. Any decision perceived as reversing the phaseout, she warned, could trigger major street protests.
“And what we don’t need right now, in this current political context,” she said, “is more political division.”
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