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Germany shuts down its last nuclear power stations

April 14, 2023

Germany has shut down its last three nuclear reactors. For the country's Green Party, it's a long-held dream come true. Meanwhile in Asia, nuclear power is experiencing a renaissance.

Greenpeace campaign against nuclear power painted large on a nuclear power plant cooling tower
Germany set to close its last nuclear power plants on April 15Image: Armin Weigel/dpa/picture alliance

At the end of March, Germany's Environment Minister Steffi Lemke of the Green Party reiterated the main reason for Germany's nuclear phaseout: "The risks of nuclear power are ultimately uncontrollable; that's why the nuclear phaseout makes our country safer, and avoids more nuclear waste."

Last year, the government found itself once again caught up in a dispute over nuclear power. In their coalition agreement, the governing center-left Social Democrats (SPD), environmentalist Greens, and business-focused Free Democrats (FDP) had agreed to stick to Germany's nuclear phaseout, which was decided under Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011. Accordingly, the last nuclear power plants were to close at the end of 2022. 

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed everything, because Russian gas supplies to Germany stopped and the government feared an energy shortage. Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally decided to extend the operating period of the power stations until April 15, 2023.

A decades-long dispute

Few disputes have polarized people, especially in the former West Germany, for as many decades as the one over nuclear power. On June 17, 1961, a German nuclear power plant supplied electricity to the grid for the first time, at Kahl in Bavaria.

Some 22,596 days and plenty of heated debate later, the last three German nuclear power plants still in operation will finally be shut down on April 15.

Altogether, 19 nuclear power plant units supplied up to a third of the country's electricity, though the last time this happened was about 20 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s in West Germany, before German unification, opposition to nuclear power brought hundreds of thousands of mostly young people out onto the streets. Then in 1986, the Chernobyl disaster in the then-Soviet Union appeared to confirm warnings about the dangers of nuclear power. But the various governing parties — the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the SPD, and the FDP — stood firmly behind the use of nuclear power for many decades.

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Nuclear power in Europe

Other European countries were quicker to phase out nuclear power. Sweden was the forerunner, ending nuclear power shortly after Chernobyl, as was Italy, which also decided to close its last two nuclear power plants following the disaster. In Italy, the decision remained in force; in Sweden, the phaseout was reversed in 1996. Today, six nuclear power plants there produce around 30% of the country's electricity needs.

Other European countries, such as the Netherlands and Poland plan to expand their nuclear power systems, while Belgium is postponing its planned phaseout. With 57 reactors, France has always been Europe's leading nuclear power country, and it intends to stay that way. All in all, 13 of 27 EU countries intend using nuclear power in the coming years, with a number expanding their capacities.

First German phaseout in 2002

In 2002, Germany's then Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, also of the Green Party, pushed through the country's first plan to phase out nuclear power. This was then softened by subsequent governments, but the horrific reactor disaster at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 finally sealed the fate of German nuclear power plants. The chancellor at the time, Angela Merkel (CDU), decided: That was it for nuclear energy in Germany.

Today, Trittin is still a member of the Bundestag for the Green Party. "Yes, this is an important day, because it brings a story to an end, namely that of the civilian use of nuclear energy," he said of this week's final shutdown. "But it's not the end of nuclear energy in Germany, we're still dealing with the fact that we'll have to safely store the world's most dangerous waste for a million years," he told DW.

Cooling tower emitting water vapour in the background, trees flank a river in the foreground
The Isar nuclear power station in Bavaria is one of the last three in GermanyImage: Christof Stache/AFP

Arguments for nuclear energy

But is this really it for nuclear energy in Germany? KernD, an association representing the interests of nuclear technology in Germany, told DW that ending nuclear power was not a good idea, in view of an energy crisis that it says has been suppressed, rather than resolved.

"Also, in view of climate policy and the very unfavorable development in electricity generation last year — due to a sharp increase in coal-fired power generation — the shutdown of three functioning nuclear power plants with a low greenhouse gas footprint is a beggar's belief," a KernD spokesperson said.

"Considering security of supply, environmental and climate protection, as well as competitiveness, more nuclear power would make more sense than none at all."

Nuclear power around the world

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are currently 422 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, with an average age of about 31 years.

But a recent IAEA report said there was no indication that nuclear was experiencing a renaissance: Nuclear power generation peaked at 17.5% in 1996, and fell below 10% in 2021 — the lowest in four decades.

And Jürgen Trittin notes that no one wants to invest in nuclear power on a large scale "because nuclear power is not competitive." Building new nuclear power plants is very expensive, often having to be co-financed by public money, and often plagued by delays and local resistance to new projects.

Aerial view of the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, surrounded by water with a wisp of cloud in the near foreground.
Japan is still dependent on nuclear power, despite the accident in Fukushima in 2011Image: Digital Globe/abaca/picture alliance

Asia expands its nuclear capacity

Nevertheless, China, Russia and India in particular are all planning to build new nuclear power plants. China, where there is virtually no civil society to fight new projects, wants to build another 47 plants. China already produces more nuclear power than France.

It is often argued that expanding nuclear power production protects the climate because it emits hardly any carbon dioxide. Even Japan wants to return to more nuclear power, despite the 2001 earthquake that caused several nuclear reactors to rupture in succession, forcing the initial closure of several nuclear power plants.

Since then, however, some reactors have been brought back online. Now the Japanese government has decided: The resource-poor country wants to build new reactors and let its old ones run for up to 70 years. "We must make full use of nuclear energy," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declared recently, as if it were his motto. Surveys show that, despite a long period of resistance, support among the Japanese population is gradually increasing.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau