Inside Germany’s power struggle over nuclear energy

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We’re gathered here today to commemorate the demise of a towering figure in the energy world: nuclear power in Germany. Born: June 16, 1961. Died: April 15, 2023. 

Just a decade ago, Germany was using nuclear power to meet about a quarter of its electricity demand, but now nuclear’s watch is ended. Earlier this month, the nation shut down the last of its nuclear power plants, 60 years after the first one began operation.

The reactions are mixed. Some consider this a victory, cheering as Germany moves away from an electricity source they see as dangerous and flawed. But others see it as a major potential roadblock for climate action—while nuclear plants have been shuttered left and right, coal power has chugged along, providing a huge chunk of the country’s electricity and spewing emissions all the while.

Germany’s true challenge is ahead, as the country tries to meet ambitious climate goals without the steady electricity supply that nuclear provides. The whole situation highlights what I see as a major question in the climate movement today: Where exactly should nuclear fit in? 

What’s been going on with nuclear power in Germany? 

There’s been a long and drawn-out battle in Germany over nuclear that’s lasted for decades. Here’s the SparkNotes version of what’s been happening: 

  • After a few incidents in the 1980s (including small ones inside Germany, not to mention Chernobyl in what’s now Ukraine), public support for nuclear power began to erode. Questions about what to do with nuclear waste started to grow as well. 
  • After lots of protests, the government made a plan to shut down all nuclear power plants. The plan was passed into law in 2002. 
  • After some flip-flopping, things came to a head again in 2011 with the Fukushima accident in Japan. German chancellor Angela Merkel pushed to speed up closures and finish the job by 2022. 
  • The shutdown was delayed from October 2022 because of concerns about energy security related to the war in Ukraine. But on April 15, 2023, at 11:59 p.m. local time, Germany’s last nuclear power plant disconnected from the electricity grid

So what does all this have to do with climate change? 

Shutting down nuclear power plants could be a big setback for climate goals. While Germany has made major progress on installing renewable energy like wind and solar, emissions from its electricity sector have been shockingly slow to fall. The country has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2045, but it missed its climate targets for both 2021 and 2022. To reach its 2030 targets, it may need to triple the pace of its emissions cuts

That slow progress is in part because wind and solar energy are replacing nuclear power —a low-emissions power source—instead of coal. 

Germany still burns a lot of coal compared with many other industrialized nations, and a lot of it is lignite coal that’s especially pollution intensive. Germany’s government has committed to phasing out coal by no later than 2038, with the current leadership targeting an earlier goal of 2030. Weaning off coal has been slow, however—recently some shuttered coal plants were restarted this winter because of the energy crisis. 

Looking at the difference between France and Germany, two high-income neighbors in western Europe, can illustrate why all this matters. 

On April 16, the day after the final nuclear plants shut down in Germany, the country recorded a carbon intensity of 476 grams of CO2 equivalent for every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. About half the nation’s electricity came from renewable sources, but coal made up about 30% of the supply. 

Meanwhile, in France, only 30% of electricity came from renewables. Add in nuclear, though, and low-carbon power sources made up 93% of the electricity supply. So France’s emissions for every unit of electricity were lower than Germany’s by a factor of nearly 10, at 51 grams CO2-eq/kWh, largely because of its heavy reliance on nuclear power. 

Is nuclear energy necessary for climate action, then? 

Supporters of Germany’s nuclear phaseout say that getting rid of nuclear power doesn’t prevent the country from also ditching coal and meeting climate goals. “It’s not an either/or question: they both need to be phased out. All fossil fuels need to be phased out,” says Miranda Schreurs, chair of environmental and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich. Schreurs was part of the 2011 committee that developed the government plan to finish the nuclear shutdown. 

Schreurs argues that the speed at which Germany has deployed renewables has been spurred by the urgency to shut down nuclear plants. There are also other options to power the country with low-emissions electricity, she says. 

Building lots of transmission lines can help move power from where it’s windy or sunny to where it’s not. Energy storage technologies like green hydrogen and batteries can also help wind and solar meet most electricity demand in the country. 

Meeting climate goals on time without nuclear energy might be easier said than done, though. By the end of the decade, Germany’s electricity generation capacity could fall short by about 30 gigawatts if it shuts down coal plants as expected, according to a 2022 report from McKinsey. 

Germany’s nuclear age might be behind us. The question is whether fossil fuels can be the next to go. 

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