This past Saturday, Germany initiated the decommissioning process for its last three nuclear power facilities, marking a significant step in the country’s transition towards renewable energy. Environmental advocates lauded the move, which had been agreed upon over ten years prior, and has been closely monitored by other nations like the United States, Japan, China, France, and the United Kingdom. These countries are seeking to harness nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. Germany’s choice to eliminate both energy sources has been met with some doubt, along with last-ditch efforts to stall the shutdown process.
Years of anti-nuclear activism in Germany, fueled by catastrophes at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, pushed consecutive governments to cease reliance on a technology deemed unsafe and unsustainable by detractors. On the day of the decommissioning, environmental organizations staged celebrations outside the power plants and in major cities like Berlin, while small, private ceremonies took place within the facilities. Supporters of nuclear energy argue that fossil fuels should be phased out first in the fight against climate change, pointing to nuclear power’s considerably lower greenhouse gas emissions and safety if managed appropriately.
With energy prices soaring last year due to the conflict in Ukraine, some members of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s administration wavered on their decision to close the nuclear plants on December 31, 2022. As a compromise, Scholz approved a one-time deadline extension, with the condition that the final shutdown would occur on April 15. However, Bavaria’s conservative governor, Markus Soeder, who supported the original 2011 deadline under Chancellor Angela Merkel, recently criticized the shutdown as “an absolute mistaken decision.”
Soeder expressed concern that, while other nations are expanding nuclear power, Germany is moving in the opposite direction. He stressed the need for diverse energy sources to avoid rising electricity costs and the potential exodus of businesses. Nuclear power advocates around the world have criticized Germany’s shutdown, fearing that the actions of Europe’s largest economy could undermine their efforts to promote nuclear power as a clean and dependable alternative to fossil fuels. The German government admits that, in the short term, the nation will have to depend more heavily on polluting coal and natural gas to meet energy demands while they work to significantly increase solar and wind energy production. Germany’s goal is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, but officials such as Environment Minister Steffi Lemke argue that the notion of a nuclear renaissance is a myth. They cite data showing that nuclear energy’s share of global electricity production is diminishing.
Lemke, at a recent news conference in Berlin, highlighted the considerable delays and cost overruns in constructing new nuclear facilities in Europe, like the Hinkley Point C project in the United Kingdom. She contended that funds allocated for maintaining aging reactors or constructing new ones would be better spent on affordable renewable energy sources. Experts like Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin believe that the 5% of Germany’s electricity currently generated by its remaining three reactors can be easily replaced without causing power outages. Lingen, the northwestern town home to the Emsland nuclear facility, has plans to become a center for hydrogen production, powered by inexpensive electricity generated from North Sea wind farms, as disclosed by Mayor Dieter Krone in a recent interview with The Associated Press. RWE, the power plant’s operator, remains committed to the shutdown, even as it continues to operate some of Europe’s most polluting coal-fired power stations. RWE recently greenlit the destruction of a village for a mine expansion, aiming to increase short-term production before terminating coal usage by 2030.
The costly dismantling of Germany’s nuclear power plants will still be underway by then, with the issue of handling the highly radioactive material accumulated over the 62 years since the country’s first reactor began operating remaining unresolved. Finding a suitable location for the safe disposal of hundreds of containers of hazardous waste has been met with strong opposition from local communities and officials, including Bavarian Governor Soeder. Lemke remarked that nuclear power has provided electricity for three generations, yet its dangerous legacy will persist for 30,000 generations, also highlighting previously unconsidered risks, such as the targeting of civilian nuclear facilities during conflicts.
The challenge of securely storing spent nuclear fuel is shared by other countries utilizing nuclear technology, including the United States. Despite this, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has declared nuclear power will “play a critical role in America’s clean energy future.” She recently welcomed Japan’s decision to restart several of its reactors. As the debate around Germany’s nuclear shutdown intensifies, Gerrit Niehaus, the top official in charge of nuclear safety at the Environment Ministry, was asked by a reporter to summarize the lessons learned from the country’s brief atomic era in a single sentence. Niehaus responded, “You need to think things through to the end.”