Will Germany Abort Its Nuclear U-Turn?

By Ariel Cohen, Alum of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Last week Robert Habeck, Germany’s “Green” economy minister publicly ruled out keeping nuclear power plants running, let alone building more. Only a week earlier, German officials proudly announced their intentions to keep the plants running. But Germany’s energy, environmental, finance, and foreign ministers are unable to keep a central message let alone agree on policy. Chancellor Olaf Scholtz (Social Democrats) appears not to be able to keep his coalition under control. This lack of discipline may cost the Federal Republic a lot.

Germany has a rocky relationship with nuclear power. A long time ago this author had a breakfast with Joschka Fischer, the one-time Far Left radical, the Green Party founder, and the Vice Chancellor, who, in response to my comment that energy is a matter of cost per calorie generated, said angrily that “you either believe in green energy, or you don’t”.

Germany To Shutter Four Nuclear Power Plants By End Of 2021
The Grohnde Nuclear Power Plant reactor dome stands on November 08, 2021 near Grohnde, Germany. The … [+]GETTY IMAGES

45 years of Cold War confrontation and fear made it the frontline for any atomic war and the home of Europe’s Green movement. Despite this, anti-nuclear sentiment acting as policy is a historically recent development. It was only after 2011’s Fukushima-Daiichi disaster that nuclear prohibition became policy, with Germany promising to shut down all reactors. 12 years later, Germany’s political class is divided and grappling with the legacy of this policy to the detriment of Europe’s energy security and the world’s environment.

Inside the governing coalition, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) already positioned itself in favor of an extension of nuclear power plants to 2024, while the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is split, and the Greens and Left parties are against it. Whilst making clear that nuclear power is only a small component of Germany’s energy supply network, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) has agreed that an extension “may make sense.” The Greens, while briefly having shown interest in the proposition, have returned to their traditional anti-nuclear posture. Federal Economics and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, who also holds the Energy portfolio stated on Sunday that “it is the wrong decision for the little we would get out of it.”

Germany Debates Using Nuclear Power To Compensate For Russian Energy Imports
ESSENBACH, GERMANY – AUGUST 04: German Christian Democrats (CDU) leader Friedrich Merz (r.) and … [+]GETTY IMAGES

The opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is leading the calls to embrace nuclear power, with CDU Leader and Parliamentary Chair Friedrich Merz calling for a “full exploitation of nuclear power”, and Markus Söder, Bavaria’s Minister-President (CSU) stating that “the continued use of nuclear power is a key topic for [Bavaria].

Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants produce about 6-8% of Germany’s energy requirements, about 8.6 billion kWh in the first quarter of 2022. Germany’s three remaining nuclear power plants, Emsland, Isaar II, and Neckarwestheim II are set to go off-grid in December. According to the operators, maintaining these stations is viable both in terms of the acquisition of nuclear fuels and safety protocols and required inspections. A survey commissioned by the Bavarian government and the operators of the Grundremmingen nuclear power plant has shown that its reactivation could be possible within six months which would increase the share of German nuclear power by 33% to about 11.4 billion kWh per quarter. The reactivation would save about 324 million mof natural gas per quarter. If other deactivated plants are also recommissioned, that figure could go up to 17 billion kWh, or just under 2 billion mof natural gas saved per quarter. Even the most basic understanding of economics and energy dictate that keeping reactors running is a good idea.

The tragedy of this bickering is that nuclear energy is rather popular amongst the German people. 78% of polled Germans are in favor of keeping the reactors running. The drive to kill the nuclear reactors is an elite issue, whereas a heavily ideologized Green Party is convinced it knows better.

Even if Germany ultimately makes the right decision, Berlin presents the world with a lesson on how not to pursue nuclear energy. Nuclear energy requires a cerebral, non-partisan discussion about energy security, spent fuel disposal, long-term planning, a robust regulatory oversight mechanism, close public-private cooperation, and integrated supply chains. Germany could have done better on all these counts.

This confusion inside Germany comes amidst a global nuclear renaissance. The four factors that are at play here include: a recognition that achieving net-zero by 2050 requires nuclear in the energy mix; an injection of federal money due to the infrastructure bill and Inflation Reduction Act; an urgent need to increase base load for utilities; and a plethora of new, safer, easier-to-build small modular reactors technology coming to market. Furthermore, the planned opening of 220 new nuclear power plants across Asia, and Poland’s emerging nuclear power in cooperation with Bechtel and Westinghouse, all showcase that much of the rest of the world has rightfully identified nuclear power as a vital element of our emerging energy transformation.

Germany could be a European and global leader if it embraces this renaissance and overcomes its petty inter-party squabbles. Or it can just keep importing coal… and Russian gas.

This piece is republished from Forbes.

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