Germany began shutting down its three remaining nuclear power plants on Saturday, April 15, 2023, as part of a long-planned transition towards renewable energy. The shutdown of the Emsland, Neckarwestheim II, and Isar II reactors was agreed upon more than a decade ago.
However, the shutdown was delayed due to concerns about energy security and the need to replace the lost nuclear capacity with other sources of energy. The German government has been slow to develop a plan to replace the energy generated by nuclear power plants with renewables, gas, and coal.
Germany was heavily dependent on Russian gas imports, with Russia supplying around 40% of Germany’s natural gas, and the war in Ukraine has prompted a major public re-think of Germany’s energy policies with the government broadening its energy mix to include renewables, gas, and coal. The shutdown of the nuclear reactors was also met with skepticism from advocates of nuclear power worldwide, and the state of Bavaria has even proposed reopening the Isar II, located 80 kilometers northeast of Munich, under its authority.
A proud history of protest: Germany’s no-nukes movement
The anti-nuclear movement in Germany has strong political and social roots and a long history dating back to the early 1970s when communities used direct action and civil disobedience to protest against plans to build nuclear power stations. In February 1975, for example, the citizens of Wyhl, a small town in southwestern Germany, organized large demonstrations and prevented the construction of a nuclear plant only days after work began on the site.
The movement is supported by a broad range of political parties and social organizations, and it is seen as a symbol of Germany’s commitment to environmentalism and social justice. Many Germans are concerned about the potential risks associated with nuclear power plants, including the possibility of accidents and the long-term effects of nuclear waste. The radioactive waste, which remains hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, must be carefully stored and monitored to prevent contamination of the environment. German governments have argued throughout the years that the risks associated with nuclear waste make it an unsustainable source of energy in the long term. Nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl or Fukushima have increased public opposition to nuclear power.
Advancements in technology have made nuclear power safer than ever before. New safety features such as passive cooling systems and digital control systems have significantly reduced the likelihood of accidents occurring. Additionally, the use of advanced materials has improved the resilience of nuclear reactors.
However, despite these advancements, nuclear power still poses significant hazards and potential dangers. The storage of nuclear waste remains a major concern and the risk of terrorist attacks targeting nuclear facilities cannot be ignored. Even with all the safety measures in place, accidents can still happen.
The rise of the Green party
The Green party, founded in the 1980s, has played a significant role in the country’s decision to phase out nuclear energy. It has used its position in government and opposition to push for the closure of nuclear power plants and the promotion of renewable energy sources. The Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), which was introduced in 2000, was co-authored by the Green party and provided the legal framework for the expansion of renewable energy in Germany.
Joschka Fischer was the first Green Party member to hold a cabinet position in Germany, serving as the country’s foreign minister from 1998 to 2005. During his tenure, he was a vocal opponent of nuclear power and played a key role in negotiating the phase-out of nuclear energy in Germany. He also supported the expansion of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
The pain before the gain? Energy policy and the Russian war
The Green Party in Germany has long advocated for a shift towards renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and biomass as an alternative to nuclear energy. The party has also supported the development of energy storage technologies, such as batteries and pumped hydro storage, to address the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources. Additionally, the party has called for increased energy efficiency measures and the phasing out of fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas.
In 2015, Germany announced its Energiewende (energy transition) policy, which aimed to shift the country towards renewable energy sources and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. This included a plan to phase out nuclear power by 2022 and increase the share of renewable energy in electricity generation to at least 80% by 2050.
In addition, Germany has increased its imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from other countries, such as the United States, and has been investing in the construction of new LNG terminals. Germany has also supported the development of renewable energy sources in other European countries, such as wind power in the North Sea and solar power in southern Europe, as a way to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Germany’s federal energy network agency has stated that the country is managing without Russian gas, but experts say that LNG terminals must come online to avoid shortages over the winter.
The phase-out of nuclear power plants, though perhaps a victim of poor timing due to the Russian war with Ukraine, is still a positive step towards a safer and more sustainable energy future. The phase-out allows for a shift towards alternative renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, which do not pose the same risks and challenges as nuclear power. This shift not only reduces the risks associated with nuclear power but also addresses the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.
[Photo by Felix König, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Dr. Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and the Director of International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research and Advisory (Abu Dhabi), as well as the Head of the Strategic Studies Department.