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Will Germany return to nuclear power?

June 23, 2022

As Germany moves to wean itself off Russian energy, politicians are debating a pause to the country's planned nuclear phaseout. Experts warn, however, that it may not be so easy.

Steam pours out of the Isar 2 nuclear power plant near Landshut in Bavaria
Germany still has three nuclear power plants in operation, including one near Landshut in BavariaImage: Armin Weigel/dpaZpicture alliance

Germany is heading into an energy crisis as Russia cuts gas supplies in retaliation for sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner warned this week that the country was on the brink of a "very serious economic crisis," and the government needed to explore all avenues to plug the gaps in the nation's energy supply.

To that end, Linder's business-focused Free Democrats (FDP), the smallest party in Berlin's governing coalition alongside the Green Party and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), have called to postpone Germany's nuclear energy phaseout. After several shutdowns in 2021, Germany currently still has three nuclear power stations running to provide 11% of the country's electricity. They are all set to be switched off by the end of the year.

Elderly protesters celebrating the shutdown of the Grohnde plant in December 2021 with sparklers
Anti-nuclear protesters celebrated their victory in December when the Grohnde plant was shut downImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's opposition to nuclear power

The use of nuclear energy as a "green" alternative to fossil fuels is controversial in Germany. The Green Party has argued for decades that the environmental hazards of disposing of nuclear waste vastly outnumbered the benefits.

When they came to power in a coalition government under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 1998, they pushed successfully for the phaseout of nuclear energy. The subsequent conservative government under the center-right Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel first rolled back the timeline, but the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan turned the tide again and Merkel pushed her party toward the phaseout after all.

The CDU is now Germany's largest opposition party, and has been demanding that the nuclear phaseout be called off. "It is technically and legally possible" for the three remaining reactors to keep on operating beyond the end of this year, said CDU chairman Friedrich Merz on Tuesday.

He was contradicting Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the SPD, who had argued it would be too hard to source the necessary nuclear fuel rods in time. Scholz said that "no one has provided me with a feasible plan" to quickly increase the output of Germany's three remaining nuclear plants — which as of now provide only 11% of the country's electricity.

The Branchenverband Kernenergie, an umbrella organization for nuclear energy businesses in Germany, told the Münchner Merkur newspaper that an extension was indeed possible, but called for quick decision-making. "The power plants are in the process of shutting down. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to start them up again," it said.

A new break for nuclear power?

According to Christian von Hirschhausen, an expert in energy and infrastructure at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Scholz has the most scientifically sound grasp of the situation.

Bringing nuclear energy back online was technically and legally "impossible," von Hirschhausen told DW. There was no way to revert the decommissioning process over the next 18 months, he said, due to the time it takes to order, deliver and install equipment as well as enrich uranium.

"They would also need to implement a new set of safety standards and checks," von Hirschhausen added, to replace those that have not been carried out in years due to the phaseout, and new laws to govern the power plants' use.

Gas crunch

As it was winding down its use of nuclear power over the past decade, Germany's reliance on Russian energy sources was ratcheted up. Almost all of the country's heavy industry is reliant on natural gas, as are about half of German homes for their source of heating.

Early this year, around 65% of natural gas in Germany came from Russia. Now, that has dropped to below 40%. In 2021, about 53% of Germany's coal needed for power and industrial production was imported from Russia, which is to be reduced to zero after an EU-wide ban takes effect in August.

In order to head off an energy crisis, Berlin is looking to fill up its gas reserves from the current 60% to at least 80% by October, and to total capacity before the winter.

This plan has left politicians scrambling to secure new import partners for oil and gas and speed up the expansion of solar and wind energy. They have also reluctantly extended the lifespan of the country's coal plants, despite promises to phase out coal entirely by 2030.

Christian Lindner and Robert Habeck in parliament
Finance Minister Christian Lindner (left) backs nuclear energy, while Economy Minister Robert Habeck of the Greens is opposedImage: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance/dpa

Many worry, however, that all this may not be enough, and they have been looking even further afield for new sources of energy. FDP lawmaker Torsten Herbst and Bavaria's center-right state premier, Markus Söder, were among the first to suggest Berlin lift its ban on fracking, a method of extracting shale gas that is popular in the United States but highly controversial for the amount of methane it leaks into the groundwater.

Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, of the Green Party, remains opposed to nuclear energy and fracking, and finds it hard to advocate for something as destructive to the climate as coal.

But increasing the use of coal, von Hirschhausen said, "is just a temporary measure. It makes sense if we want to build up reserves...so that there aren't major shortages in the energy supply."

In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF on Tuesday, Habeck vowed that the government's ambitious plan to completely exit coal in the next eight years was still on track.

The coalition is set to debate ways to avert a potentially disastrous lack of energy supply in the next two weeks, with an eye to presenting a new plan at the beginning of July.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.