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No exit from Germany's nuclear energy exit

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Jens Thurau
September 6, 2022

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck wants to keep two of the three German nuclear power plants on standby for an extra three months as an emergency reserve. That is the right decision, says Jens Thurau.

A nuclear power plant
The Emsland nuclear power plant will be turned off at the end of the yearImage: Rupert Oberhäuser/picture alliance

So now, after all, Germany is extending the operation of the nuclear power plants still connected to the grid. Even if only for two of the three, the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant in Baden-Württemberg and the Isar reactor in Bavaria — and only as an emergency standby. The Emsland nuclear power plant in northern Germany is to be taken off the grid as planned at the end of the year.

The electricity and gas supply crisis is behind the current decision. The two power plants will be running longer than planned for just three months. All the same it is a turning point, especially for the Greens, who are an important cog in the government's machinery.

Ending atomic energy is a core Greens' demand

For a long time, the end of nuclear energy in Germany was an elementary reason for the Greens' existence. Time and again, not only the Greens argued that the dispute over nuclear energy in Germany, after decades of heated argument, had finally been shelved with the decision to phase out nuclear power in 2011, after the Fukushima reactor disaster. The Greens in particular really came together as a party in the fight against nuclear energy in the early 1980s.

Thurau Jens
DW's Jens Thurau

But now everything has changed, every straw is being clutched at to break free from dependence on Russian energy supplies. Even Robert Habeck of the Greens, whose ministerial portfolio includes energy policy, has given the changing situation due consideration. Winter can be tough, very tough. Which means the remaining German nuclear power plants must continue to operate, even if they only supply 6% of the country's electricity — all three combined. But in times of crisis, every little bit is needed.

No plea for nuclear energy

The decision is probably the right one to get Germany through the winter, a pragmatic weighing of interests by politicians who have sworn an oath of office to deflect harm from the country. But considerations that go above and beyond, as suggested by opposition politicians, to hold on to nuclear energy in Germany, are a different matter.

If the three nuclear power plants that are still active were to run for longer than three months, they would need new fuel elements, and those are cheapest in Russia. It is a catch-22. Whatever the government does, it can only ever be about becoming independent of Putin and his stranglehold on energy. A continued operation of the German nuclear power plants beyond three months at Putin's mercy is not a convincing argument.

Infografik - Strommix in Deutschland 2021 - EN

Renewables are the only way out

So, we're looking at only two out of three reactors, and only in case of an emergency. A glance at France, where 28 of the 56 power plants are currently not on the grid, shows that nuclear energy hardly offers a way out of the current energy crisis here in Germany and elsewhere. One of the reasons is the shortage of cooling water from the rivers in the summer drought. In France as in Germany, the only alternative is to save energy wherever possible — electricity, gas, oil. And to expand renewable energies as quickly as possible.

At the end of the day it is the right decision. Two of the three nuclear power plants still on the grid will help the Germans get through the winter in an emergency, but nothing more. It is not a plea for a future of nuclear energy. On the other hand, who knows how long this decision will last in these troubled times — apart from the fact that it still needs the blessing of the entire government. And that is anything but a given in these weeks and months.

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