Germany seems ready for nuclear exit number 4
Exit 2 took place in 2010. The government, then made up of the centre-right Christian Democrats and business-friendly Free Democrats, decided to exit the first exit and keep the remaining nuclear power plants in operation. Release 3 followed less than a year after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. This frightened the government to come out of its own exit from the previous exit. That is to say, Germany has started to phase out nuclear energy again.
The country’s last three fission reactors are due to be decommissioned by the end of this year. Bad timing, of course. This is the year Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to attack Ukraine and declare economic war on the European Union. It is already choking the natural gas that was flowing from Russia to central Europe.
Germany, in particular, depends on this gas. It mainly needs it to power factories and heat homes. But the gas was also meant to fill the gap in electricity generation left by the phasing out of nuclear power – which still accounted for 12% of electricity last year.
The government dealing with this mess again consists of the 2000 list of Social Democrats and Greens, but now with the addition of the Free Democrats who were part of later exits. The result is cacophonous.
The Christian Democrats, now in opposition, are calling for an extension of the three nuclear power plants still in service. This could be done even without buying new fuel rods. The Free Democrats agree, but tread carefully lest they disrupt the coalition’s fragile peace.
Others also want to restart reactors already offline – a group of 20 university professors are urging Parliament to permanently quit all previous nuclear exits. One industry association even wants to invest in entirely new fission plants.
Germany’s European partners are also vocal. They never understood Germany’s nuclear hysteria in the first place. France depends on fission for most of its electricity and is investing in more reactors. Tech-savvy countries like Finland see nuclear power as a small but crucial part of any resilient energy mix.
Eastern members of the EU, from Poland to Romania and Slovakia, are particularly annoyed. They have spent decades urging Germany not to make itself dependent on Russian gas and vulnerable to Putin’s blackmail. The Germans either ignored them or lectured them smugly on Kremlinology, refusing to acknowledge any connection between their policies on Russia, gas and fission.
Now these links are obvious. Thus, the EU, trying to appear united, asks all member states to reduce gas consumption by 15%. But some countries see this as bailing out the Germans for their own political failures. As a Slovak official put it, why not start saving gas by turning on Germany’s nuclear reactors first?
The Dutch make a similar point. They have the largest gas field in Europe, in Groningen. But the extraction of hydrocarbons from the ground causes earthquakes, so the Netherlands gradually cease production. Now Germany is asking its neighbor to rethink this exit, because it wants gas from Groningen to replace Putin’s. It would be an easier sell to Dutch voters if the Germans showed some flexibility on nuclear.
What many foreigners don’t appreciate, however, is that the German controversy is less a political debate than a religious war – much like the American gun or abortion debates, for example. . Many Germans have spent their entire lives protesting the splitting of atoms. The Green Party base, in particular, is full of fanatics who view all nuclear energy as evil, and any attempt to nuance the discussion as tantamount to treason.
But the Greens are in government and have responsibilities. They even head the relevant ministries — those of environment and trade and energy. Party leaders are therefore dipping their toes into the discussion.
Germany has a gas problem, not an electricity problem, they claim. True up to a point. Maintaining nuclear reactors would probably only save 4% of the country’s total gas consumption, far from the 15% projected by the EU. But no one is suggesting that this should be the only step – just that it’s one of many the Germans can’t afford to give up.
Yes, nuclear fission has risks. One is the danger of accidents that leak radiation. Another is the problem of finding permanent repositories for radioactive waste. But all forms of energy carry risks. These must be weighed against the risks of the alternatives and against the benefits.
Renewable energies such as the sun and the wind are obviously the preferred option. But they fluctuate. And wind turbines span far more countryside and nature than reactors. Gas and oil emit carbon – and often come from unsavory sellers like Putin. Coal – Germany’s default in the absence of nuclear and gas – is even dirtier. It is most blamed for accelerating climate change, the greatest risk of all.
On the other hand, the risks of fission energy seem manageable, especially with new technologies. Even better, it emits no greenhouse gases. It also doesn’t stop when the sun goes down or the breeze dies down. That’s why the International Energy Agency says the world needs more, not less.
Even the wars of religion end up exhausting themselves. I guess German leaders, including those who lead the Greens, secretly yearn for peace. They wonder how to communicate this to the public. Exit number 4 is getting closer.
More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:
Germany learned the wrong nuclear lesson from Fukushima: Andreas Kluth
Germany’s switch to diesel from gas comes at a cost: Javier Blas
Having trouble staying cool? The same goes for the generator that powers your air conditioning: David Fickling
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. Former editor of Handelsblatt Global and writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
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