By Andreas Kluth
It is becoming difficult to measure Germany’s “outputs”. I am talking about those related to nuclear energy. Let’s see them. I think we are now between three and four, but closer to four.
Nuclear exit number 1 started in 2000. The government then consisted of the centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens. The latter were in power for the first time, having developed as a movement out of the hippie counterculture of the 1970s and in particular out of the German mass movement against nuclear power. So Germany decided to phase out its nuclear power plants.
Exit 2 occurred in 2010. The government, then consisting of the centre-right Christian Democrats and the pro-business centrist Free Democrats, decided to abandon the first exit and keep the remaining nuclear plants operating. This was followed by exit 3 within a year, after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. The latter led the government to exit its own exit from the previous exit. More simply, Germany has begun phasing out nuclear power again.
The country’s last three fission reactors are due to be decommissioned at the end of this year. Bad timing, obviously. This is the year Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to attack Ukraine and declare economic war on the European Union. It is already strangling natural gas flowing from Russia to central Europe.
Germany, in particular, relies on this gas. It is mainly needed to power factories and heat homes. But natural gas was also expected to fill the gap in electricity generation left by the phasing out of nuclear power – which still accounted for 12% of electricity generation last year.
The government facing this mess once again consists of the 2000 roster of Social Democrats and Greens, but now with the addition of the Liberal Democrats who took part in later exits. The result is a cacophony.
The Christian Democrats, now in opposition, are calling for the life of the three nuclear plants still in operation to be extended. This could be done even without buying new fuel rods. The Liberal Democrats agree, but are treading carefully so as not to upset the weak unity of the governing coalition.
Others want to restart reactors that are already offline – a group of 20 university professors is urging parliament to permanently walk away from all previous nuclear exits. An industry association now wants to invest in entirely new nuclear fission units.
Germany’s European partners are also “noisy” on the issue. They never understood Germany’s nuclear hysteria in the first place. France relies on fission for most of its electricity and is investing in more reactors. Cutting-edge countries like Finland see nuclear power as a small but pivotal part of any sustainable energy mix.
Eastern EU members, from Poland to Romania and Slovakia, are particularly upset. They spent decades urging Germany not to become dependent on Russian gas and vulnerable to Putin’s blackmail. The Germans either ignored them or lectured them on “Kremlinology”, refusing to acknowledge any connection between their policies on Russia, natural gas and nuclear fission.
Now these relationships are obvious. So the EU, trying hard to appear united, is asking all member states to cut their gas use by 15%. Some countries, however, see it as a form of German bailout for purely German policy failures. As one Slovak official says, why not start saving natural gas by turning on Germany’s nuclear reactors first?
The Dutch have a similar view. They have the largest natural gas field in Europe, in Groningen. However, extracting hydrocarbons from the ground causes earthquakes, so the Netherlands is phasing out production. Now Germany is asking its neighbor to rethink that exit, as it wants to see Groningen’s natural gas replace Putin’s. This would be an easier sell to Dutch voters if the Germans showed some flexibility on nuclear.
What many outsiders don’t understand, however, is that the controversy in Germany is less a political debate and more a religious war — quite reminiscent of the perennial bickering in America over guns or abortion.
Many Germans have spent their whole lives protesting against the splitting of the atom. The base of the Green party, in particular, is filled with zealots who see nuclear power as inherently evil and any attempt to rationalize the debate is seen as treasonous.
But the Greens are in government and they have a responsibility. They even run the relevant ministries – those for the environment, trade and energy. Thus, the party leaders are necessarily preparing to get their hands dirty.
Germany has a gas problem, not an electricity problem, they argue. Right up to a point. Keeping the nuclear reactors would likely save only 4% of the country’s total natural gas consumption, far less than the 15% set by the EU. Yet no one is suggesting this is the only step – just one of many which the Germans cannot afford to give up.
Yes, nuclear fission has risks. One is the risk of accidents that leak radiation. Another is the problem of finding permanent repositories for radioactive waste. However, all forms of energy have risks. These must be balanced against the risks of the alternatives and their benefits.
Renewable energy sources such as sun and wind are obviously the preferred choice. But they have fluctuations. Wind turbines spread over much more of the countryside and nature than reactors. Natural gas and oil emit pollutants – and they often come from disreputable sellers like Putin. Coal – Germany’s refuge in the absence of nuclear and natural gas – is even dirtier. It bears the brunt of accelerating climate change, the greatest of all risks.
On the contrary, the risks of nuclear fission seem manageable, especially with new technologies. Best of all, it emits no greenhouse gases. Nor does it stop when the sun goes down or the breeze drops. That’s why the International Energy Agency says the world needs more, not less, nuclear power.
Even religious wars at some point exhaust their momentum. My guess is that Germany’s leaders, including those leading the Greens, are secretly longing for a “pacification”. They’re just agonizing over how to communicate it to the public. Exit number 4 is approaching.