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Why can't Germany break up with nuclear energy?

Kristie Pladson | Neil King
November 21, 2022

Germany has spent 25 years flipflopping on nuclear power. An energy crunch caused by the war in Ukraine is the latest reason to reconsider the technology.

Steam coming out of a nuclear reactor
Germany has once again extended the lifespan of its last nuclear energy plantsImage: Armin Weigel/dpa/picture alliance

The pillar of vapor can be seen billowing into the sky from miles away, but finding the nuclear reactor isn't that easy. The Emsland Nuclear Power Station is tucked away between a patch of trees and a chemical factory, quietly generating nuclear power for Germany just 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) south of downtown Lingen, a small city in the regional German state of Lower Saxony.

"Honestly, you forget about it," Christine, a 44-year-old who grew up in the area, told DW on the red-brick streets of Lingen. "And you trust and hope that everything will be fine."

The Emsland reactor is one of the last three nuclear power stations in Germany. All three were meant to be shut down for good on New Year's Eve this year, bringing a complete end to nuclear energy production in Germany. Then Russia started waging war in Ukraine. 

"Really I think of myself as against nuclear energy," Christine said. "But I have to admit that you see the situation a bit differently now."

Major policy change

Until recently, Russia had been a major energy partner to Germany, providing the country with the majority of its oil and natural gas. But tensions over the war in Ukraine upended that partnership. It has left Germany scrambling for alternative supplies as the winter months take hold in Europe, and sent energy prices through the roof.

Now the country is rethinking its nuclear phaseout strategy. Today Germany's three existing nuclear reactors produce around 6% of the country's electricity supply. But it wasn't always this way: back in the 1990s, 19 nuclear power plants were producing about a third of Germany's power supply.

Then, in 1998, a new center-left government consisting of the Social Democrats and the Greens party moved to get away from nuclear energy, a long-held objective of the Greens. Their prominence had started taking off in the 1980s as they railed against the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy against the backdrop of the Cold War. The construction of new nuclear plants in Germany ended in 2002 and plans were made to phase out all existing facilities over the next few decades.

Protestors demonstrating against the planned nuclear fuel reprossessing plant at Gorleben in 1979
Anti-nuclear protests led to the founding of Germany's Greens and formented public distrust in the technologyImage: Dieter Klar/picture alliance

'Fascinating' technology

But Germany's dramatic affair with nuclear energy wasn't even close to being over. In 2010, a coalition of the conservative Christian Democrats and the liberal Free Democratic Party came into power and extended the use of nuclear energy by up to 14 years. But just one year later, meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan prompted Germany to do an about-face on this policy. The government returned to the plan for a nuclear phaseout by the end of 2022.

Until October this year, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ordered the country's three remaining nuclear power stations to keep operating until mid-April of 2023, less than three months before their planned retirement.

Speaking with DW the week of his own retirement from the industry, Lingen local and electrician Franz-Josef Thiering isn't surprised Germany is struggling to break up with nuclear energy. Over coffee at his home, he shows off a model of a sliver of uranium, gifted to him by the uranium fuel rod company where he had worked. Encased in clear plastic is a thin, dark square the size of a pinky finger nail. Two of these slivers can power one average household in Germany for one year, Thiering says.

"That fascinates me," he told DW. "That's physics."

Growing energy needs

It's foolish to discount the significance of the electricity produced by Germany's nuclear power plants as the country tries to pull off a transition to green energy, Thiering argued.

"We will need more electric power in the future. That's a fact," he said, thinking of things like electric cars and heat pumps. "And 6% can be a lot to miss when there is nothing new [to replace it]. We'd be losing 6% when we really will need more."

Many Germans seem to agree. While the majority of the public was in favor of the nuclear phaseout following the Fukushima disaster, as of August this year over 80% were in favor of extending the lifespan of Germany's existing nuclear reactors, according to a survey by German broadcaster ARD.

Disaster fears

But fears of a nuclear disaster and the unresolved question of what to do with radioactive nuclear waste still have many convinced the extension is the wrong move. Claudia Kemfert, a professor of energy economics at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, points to Germany's neighbor France, where they are highly dependent on nuclear energy, as an example.

"Half of the new nuclear power plants [in France] are offline and because they have safety difficulties," Kemfert told DW. "In Germany, we have the same problem. The safety inspections haven't been done for over 15 years now. And we need to do them urgently in order to see whether we have the same problem as in France."

She also makes the point that nuclear power is a poor substitute for natural gas, which can also be used for heating, not just producing electricity.

Do we need nuclear energy to stop climate change?

Small carbon footprint

Still, many are now seeing nuclear energy as preferable to a fall back to burning coal, another strategy Germany has reached for amid this energy crisis. Nuclear plants produce 117 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour, according Dutch-based anti-nuclear group WISE, whereas burning lignite, a type of coal, produces over 1,000 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour.

Despite the changing circumstances, Thiering doesn't see this temporary extension turning into a full-blown nuclear renaissance in Germany.

"I think we're only talking about a short time, really," he said. "Like a bridge."

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

For more on nuclear energy and the energy crisis in Germany, check out this episode of DW's environment podcast On The Green Fence

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