Came the day. As of this Saturday, Germany will not produce one more gigawatt of nuclear origin. With the closure of the last three reactors, the era of atomic power generation comes to an end in the first European economy after 60 years and in the midst of the energy and climate crisis. Although the decision was made almost two decades ago, the long-announced nuclear blackout is generating enormous last-minute controversy in the country. Some twenty scientists have published an open letter in which they claim to keep the plants open, while the opposition talks about a “black day” for the country.
The energy crisis unleashed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had given nuclear one last extension. They should have been disconnected on December 31, as Angela Merkel’s government decided in 2011 after the Fukushima catastrophe. The date of the definitive blackout was set by law after a long process of progressive shutdown that began in 2002. However, the need to support electricity production in light of the cut in Russian gas supply forced the coalition of Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz will extend its operation until the end of winter.
The decision has been made, and there is no turning back, but that has not prevented the defenders of this technology from crying out loud and demanding a new extension in the face of the difficult situation that the war has caused. The definitive goodbye to nuclear energy opens a chapter of enormous uncertainty. The challenge is enormous because Germany will not have an easy time meeting its climate commitments. It will need to transition to a decarbonized economy by 2045 without nuclear power and by phasing out coal, which currently produces around a third of the country’s electricity. In 2038, this source of energy, the most polluting, should disappear completely. And all this at a time when cheap Russian gas has ceased to flow happily through the pipes that the various foreign ministers promoted for decades.
Germany also has ahead of it the enormous task of dismantling the power plants – there were 37 reactors in operation – and storing the radioactive waste generated in the last 60 years. Berlin has not yet decided where it will build the final cemetery, a hot potato that all governments have so far avoided.
Nuclear provides 6% of electricity
Fossil fuels still dominate the German energy mix. In 2022, nuclear barely represented 6% of the total, while at the end of the last century it exceeded 30%. Coal and gas added 46.2%. Renewables, especially solar and wind, contributed 44.6%. The country has proposed to reach 80% in 2030, for which “four or five wind turbines will have to be installed every day”, assured the chancellor, Olaf Scholz. A forecast that seems optimistic, because last year only 551 were launched throughout the country.
The closure of the last three plants will not have a major impact on the system, says Georg Zachmann, an energy expert at the Bruegel think tank in Berlin, who recalls that the decision was “essentially irreversible since the summer of last year.” But abandoning nuclear energy “does not facilitate either the reduction of emissions or the security of supply,” he acknowledges: “That this definitive closure coincides with the biggest energy crisis in Europe is bad luck. The lack of cheap gas forces Germany to massively accelerate its transition, at a very high cost.
The operators of the Isar 2 power plants, in Bavaria (south); Neckarwestheim 2, in Baden-Württemberg (southwest), and Emsland, in Lower Saxony (northwest), have been preparing to disconnect from the network for months. The extension has not required buying new fuel rods, which was the red line for the Greens to give their go-ahead to the extension. The Liberals, the other coalition partner of Scholz’s Social Democrats, pushed to keep the reactors running for at least all of this year, which would have meant generating new nuclear waste. The decommissioning process will begin immediately. In fact, the Neckarwestheim operator, EnBW, has already been granted authorization for a few days. “In this context, the debate on a new extension is purely theoretical,” says a spokesman.
Theoretical or not, of course the debate is in the street. A recent poll by public television ARD shows a reversal in the opinion of the Germans on nuclear energy. From being overwhelmingly in favor of the blackout, they have come to be against (59%) the abandonment of this technology. Wolfgang Irrek, Professor of Energy Management and Energy Services at the Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences, does not explain the effervescence of the debate “despite the fact that it is decided and no German company wants to build new power plants or expand the operation of existing ones , not to mention that nuclear energy is the most expensive in the world”.
Political parties have also changed their minds. The decision to set a date for the nuclear blackout was made in 2011, with a broad consensus, by a government made up of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and liberals. “Now these formations see an opportunity for political gain by linking the current energy problems to an abandonment that was originally the idea of the greens,” Zachmann says.
“Tomorrow [por el sábado] It is a bad day, it is a black day for Germany”, lamented the current leader of the opposition, the Christian Democrat Friedrich Merz: “It cannot be that we take three nuclear power plants that are the safest in the world off the grid. No country is reacting to the Ukrainian war and energy crisis like Germany. Who’s driving the wrong way here?” The Conservatives accuse the Minister of Economy and Climate, the green Robert Habeck, of preferring to burn coal to produce electricity than to use nuclear energy.
The Scholz Executive ensures that energy security is guaranteed without the three reactors. “Gas deposits are well supplied, we have built new LNG terminals on the coast and we are preparing a massive expansion of renewable energy,” Habeck said.
“It is a good day for Germany and for climate protection,” proclaims Greenpeace nuclear expert Heinz Smital, paraphrasing Friedrich Merz. The organization, which has spent decades fighting to see the end of an energy that it considers extremely dangerous, ensures that the gradual elimination of atomic energy favors the expansion of renewable energies, which is the objective that has been set not only by the German government, but also by the German government. but those of the EU and the rest of the world.
The scientists who have written to Scholz do not see it that way. The three reactors “could supply electricity to more than 10 million or a quarter of German households,” they say in the open letter. “By requiring less electricity from coal plants, up to 30 million tons of CO2 would be saved,” they add, which “would clearly contribute to alleviating the energy crisis and achieving climate objectives.”
In the midst of the energy crisis, Germany has decided to go in the opposite direction to the rest of its partners in the European Union (except Spain), who see nuclear as a guarantee to ensure supply by reducing CO2 emissions. France, which has historically relied on nuclear power for 70% of its electricity, is pushing to include it in EU renewable energy targets and has announced it will build more plants. Also the Netherlands. Belgium has announced that it will keep them active for 10 more years and Poland, which does not have any, will begin to build them.
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