There will be no cermonial shut-off switch for Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin to flick when the Stade nuclear power plant in northern Germany goes offline on Friday, but chances are the champagne corks will be popping in the Green party headquarters this evening.
With the early closure of the country's second-oldest nuclear reactor, Germany will take the first step of an ambitious nuclear phase-out law engineered by the Greens three years ago.
“It’s of course wonderful, and the first of many,” said Michaela Hustedt, the Greens' environmental expert in an interview.
Under the 2002 law, Germany’s 19 nuclear reactors will close down after reaching 32 years of operation. Stade is the first reactor to be removed from the grid. When the last reactor goes off the grid in around 2020, nuclear and coal power, which currently provide the country with 80 percent of its electricity, will have bowed out in favor of renewable energy.
But the plan is coming under increasing criticism from energy companies and opposition politicians, who say the prohibitive cost of renewable energy and recent blackouts in the United States prove the country still needs its nuclear plants.
“Looking at it technically, renewable energy can’t cover as our basic source of energy,” said Peter Poppe, a spokesman for Vatenfall Europe, one of the four utility companies to agree on the “Nuclear Consensus” in 2000. “The sun, we all know, isn’t a regular in Germany and the wind, as it says in the Bible, the wind blows where it wants to.”
Other countries holding off of nuclear power
Nuclear reactors, though heavily subsidized by the government, still provide the more stable form of energy, say phase-out opponents. Across Europe countries that have sworn off nuclear energy, like Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, continue to rely heavily on their reactors. Sweden which decided to phase out nuclear power in 1980, has so far taken only one reactor off the grid and has been hesitating recently on shutting down the second.
With the Kyoto Protocol requiring countries in the future to keep carbon emissions like those from coal-burning plants down, German energy experts are concerned that the country won’t have a stable source of power to make up for the 40,000 megawatts in power lost when plants go off the grid in the coming 20 years.
“You either phase-out nuclear energy, or you reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but you can’t do both,” says Wolfgang Pfaffenberger, director of the Bremen Energy Insitute.
Energy companies hoping for delay
Germany’s big four energy companies – Vatenfall, Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg, E.on and RWE – are secretly hoping the country follows the European trend and delay deadlines for shutting their reactors, says Pfaffenberger. Their problem would also be solved if the opposition Christian Democratic party, which wants to keep nuclear energy around longer, boots out the Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s red-green coalition government in the 2006 federal elections.
“They are hoping that day comes but they don’t want to say it because it would decrease the likelihood of it happening,” Pfaffenberger says.
Environmentalists say they should instead be focusing on developing their renewable energy technology. The gradual transition from nuclear power will be covered by a temporary combination of coal, wind and gas power, according to the Environment Ministry.
Eventually, coal will be phase out as new energy sources like the geo-thermic plant that opened in northeastern Germany this week, become economicallly viable.
“We just can’t switch our energy sources from today to tomorrow,” says Björn Pieprzyk, of the Association for Renewable Energy. “But the direction has to be right.”
The growing power of wind
Germany has so far favored wind over other renewable energy resources. The more than 12,000 wind turbines that dot the German countryside in the north and southwest of the country are indirectly subsidized by the government. The early subsidies have helped mid-sized German companies become worldwide leaders in the wind market.
“Wind is already a classic energy source, even if some don’t see it, or want to see it,” says Andreas Düser, whose company Enercon is second in the worldwide market and has production plants in Sweden, Brazil and India.
The Green party has high hopes for additional renewable energy sources, eventually wanting them to increase their current eight percent share of the German electricity market to 20 percent by 2020.
Critics want energy puzzle solved
“We want a broad palette of renewable energies. Micro-turbines, solar technology, and so on,” says Hustedt. “But it is difficult to predict,” what will take off economically.
The economic uncertainty on what renewable energy source will take off when has only added fuel to the argument of the phase-out naysayers. Though the transition from nuclear power is only just beginning, skeptics say Germany needs to have a better concept of what makes up the rest of the energy puzzle.
If the Greens increase renewable energy to 20 percent, "you still have 80 percent you need to take care of, and no nuclear energy," says Pfaffenberger, co-author of a book on power supply.
"Up until now, people haven't been worried ... and who looks 10 years into the future anyway? But the experts are annoyed that we haven't found an alternative yet," he said.