Germany's decision to close its remaining nuclear plants makes no sense

Jazz touched on this over the weekend but there’s a good opinion piece about it today in the Washington Post. It’s titled, “Germany’s anxiety about nuclear energy is leading to nonsensical policy.

Just before midnight on Dec. 31, Germany switched off three more of its nuclear power plants. Once it had 17; now only three are left, and they too will be shut down at the end of the year. Soon Germany will produce no nuclear energy at all. But the activists were wrong to celebrate. Germany’s hasty nuclear retreat is neither safe nor green. It’s a disastrous mistake that will have ramifications well beyond the country’s own borders…

Germany’s new vice chancellor, Robert Habeck of the Green Party, justified the decision on national TV a couple of days earlier: “Our exit from nuclear energy is right. … We may be doing this much quicker than other European countries but we have made a conscious decision to do so.”

Conscious or not, the decision will isolate Germany. The pro-E.U. government in Berlin finds itself at odds with Brussels over its views on nuclear energy. The (German) president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said that the E.U. still needs nuclear technology, and French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a televised speech that he is going to “relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors in our country.”

What’s most striking is that Germany doesn’t plan to eliminate the use of coal for more than a decade. It’s also upping its use of Russian natural gas, which not only means more dependence on fossil fuels but more dependence on Putin.

Though Germany has invested heavily in renewables, it nevertheless has had to burn massive amounts of coal since 2011 to keep its economy running. Absent nuclear, Germany also depends more on Russian natural gas, a deep geopolitical vulnerability that gives leverage to Russia’s authoritarian government.

True, the German government has committed to phasing out coal — but not until 2038. Even on this long time frame, eliminating coal without help from nuclear power plants will be perilous for Europe’s largest economy. Analysts warn that Germany’s supply margin — how much electrical generation capacity the country has in reserve — could plummet in the next couple of years, risking blackouts in times of grid stress.

So why would Germany push to end the use of nuclear power long before it ends the use of coal? There’s a longer piece about that at Clean Energy Wire. Basically it suggests the answer is cultural and political. Culturally, Germans have a long history of opposition to nuclear even though they’ve never had a serious accident. Politically, it’s the green party and the left that opposes nuclear while the parties to the center and right have a more nuanced view.

The conviction that nuclear power should not be part of Germany’s energy mix has a long history and is deeply rooted in German society. After years of protests against nuclear power station projects in several locations, and fuelled by the accident at Three Mile Island (U.S.) in 1979 and the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, the anti-nuclear movement resulted in no new commercial reactors being built in Germany after 1989.

When the Social Democrats and Green Party took over from a conservative government in 1998, they agreed a “nuclear consensus” with the big utilities operating the nuclear station fleet. By giving them certain power generation allocations, the last plant would be closed in 2022…

Although keenly embraced by the leading parties in the 1960s, nuclear power was a relatively new phenomenon which didn’t have a strong footing in society and soon got discredited by accidents and protests. Coal mining, on the other hand, has been deeply rooted in several German states for 200 years. It used to have a large – and often proud – workforce with considerable political influence and was often the main employer and economic stronghold of a region. It is (or, in the case of hard coal, was) also a domestically available energy source.

These are among the reasons why it was easier for Germany to initiate the exit of nuclear power before the phasing out of coal.

So it’s not that phasing out nuclear before coal makes sense, it’s really just that there’s a long history of leftist opposition to nuclear power which no one wants to retract.