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Greta: Germany making 'mistake' by ditching nuclear for coal

October 11, 2022

The Swedish climate activist said it would be a "bad idea" for Germany to focus on coal when nuclear power plants were already in place. German politicians looking to extend the running times pounced on the comments.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks on the stage of a demonstration in Glasgow, Scotland, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021 which is the host city of the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit.
Certain German politicians rushed to embrace the comments from climate activist Greta ThunbergImage: Jon Super/AP/picture alliance

Climate activist Greta Thunberg told German public television on Tuesday that she would consider it a mistake to switch off existing nuclear power plants and to focus on coal instead to generate electricity. 

"It depends. If you have them already running, I feel it's a mistake to close them and focus on coal," Thunberg said on the "Maischberger" talk show on ARD.

"I personally think it's a very bad idea to focus on coal when [nuclear power] is already in place," the climate activist said.

She acknowledged how sensitive the question was among climate activists, calling the issue "a very infected debate."

What's the state of play with German nuclear power? 

Germany's longstanding gradual shutdown of nuclear power was originally scheduled to be completed at the end of this year. 

However, the war in Ukraine and resultant pressures on fossil fuel exports and electricity prices have cast this policy back into question. 

The government has agreed to a limited extension of two of the last nuclear plants' running times by just a few months, covering the coldest winter months. But the opposition and one member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's ruling coalition are lobbying for a longer extension. 

Although it's probably an oversimplification to describe the nuclear shutdown as being compensated by a "focus on coal," the government has separately approved the reactivation of several coal- and oil-burning power plants to secure supply in the winter.

Germany also dug new coal mines while it was in the process of shutting down its nuclear power fleet in recent years. That said, the government has also pledged to phase out coal usage by 2030.

Steam rising from the cooling tower of the Isar 2 nuclear power plant in Bavaria. Undated archive image.
Germany's last nuclear reactors, including Isar 2 in Bavaria, were scheduled to shut down at the end of the year but Ukraine has cast this back into questionImage: Armin Weigel/dpa/picture alliance

German politicians pounce on Thunberg's comments

Finance Minister Christian Lindner, the head of the pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP), and the leader of the conservative opposition Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria, Markus Söder, were both quick to welcome Thunberg's comments. 

"I welcome the support of Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg for the FDP position to keep our nuclear plants on the grid. In this energy war everything that generates electricity must be on the grid. The reasons speak for themselves — economically and physically," Lindner wrote on Twitter. 

Lindner's FDP is the only member of Scholz's coalition government that is keen to extend the nuclear plants' running time further. The party's fellow coalition partners — the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the ecologist Greens — both pride themselves as being the parties that implemented Germany's original nuclear shutdown plans at the turn of the century.

Söder shared footage of part of Thunberg's interview on social media, captioning it simply: "Interesting..." Both the power plants scheduled for a brief extension are in the southern state of Bavaria. 

Tensions within German government

Tensions on the issue were evident within the coalition on Tuesday.

Robert Habeck, a member of the Greens and minister for economic affairs and climate action, accused Lindner's Finance Ministry of holding up the government process to approve a short extension of a few months for the nuclear plants. 

Habeck told news magazine Der Spiegel that if the Finance Ministry wanted the short extension to be approved in time for winter, they "must clear the path for this now."

Habeck's ministry had said the government had agreed to bring the motion through Cabinet by Monday of next week with a view to it being debated in parliament 

Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, also of the Greens, told the dpa news agency that the Finance Ministry was refusing to sign a draft law "despite the agreement reached in the last week" to send the proposal to the Bundestag. 

Habeck argues that time is running out to conduct repairs at one reactor to enable it to continue operating longer than currently scheduled. 

The FDP's Johannes Vogel, meanwhile, said that there was still plenty of time to meet the "fastest timetable proposal" from Habeck's ministry. 

Thunberg: Main focus should be renewables, even amid Ukraine war

Thunberg also warned against regressing towards less green power amid the war in Ukraine.

She said she understood the need to protect people from excessive energy costs, but said people were also "dependent" on power and a system that was not sustainable. 

Thunberg said that climate change was not being treated like a global emergency, and said other recent issues like the COVID pandemic had demonstrated that this was possible. She said that even amid crises people could not lose sight of climate change. 

"Every war is a disaster. On many levels. But we must be able to focus on different things at the same time," Thunberg said. 

Edited by: Rebecca Staudenmaier

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Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam