Germany just closed three of its last six nuclear power plants despite rising energy costs and the country’s lofty climate goals.
How the country plans to replace the reliable energy that these units provided—especially while meeting its ambitious climate goals—is still to be seen.
In the wake of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant following the Japanese earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011, Germany made the decision to phase out all of its nuclear power plants by the end of 2022. This decision was more of an emotional response than a practical one. It was driven by public fear and outcry in response to the Fukushima accident rather than by any rational form of risk assessment.
Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel was frightened that this accident happened in a country with the technological advancement of Japan, but as Leon Holly pointed out for Aero Magazine, “Merkel was relying on faulty assumptions. Her image of Japan as technologically advanced was skewed by that country’s technological prowess in particular fields, such as automobiles and robotics, while she failed to take into account Japan’s lower nuclear safety standards.” Japanese nuclear reactors were not constructed with the same containment domes as are the nuclear reactors in America and Europe. This left their reactors far more vulnerable to this type of accident than reactors in other countries would have been, but the technological advancement of Japan in other areas leaves other countries feeling as though they face the same vulnerability, even if the facts tell a different story.
All of Germany’s nuclear plants were thoroughly inspected in the wake of Fukushima and found to be safe. The country’s Reactor Safety Commission found that “German facilities appear to be better prepared than the Fukushima power plant with regard to electricity supply and protection against flooding. Further robustness tests revealed no uniform findings that could be related to either plant design or age.” The German reactors were both better situated to handle a similar disaster, but the plants had also not degraded with age. In a rational political environment, these findings would have led to a decision to continue reaping the benefits of reliable low carbon intensity energy for decades to come. But this was not a rational political environment.
The decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany was predicated on fear over facts, and the damage to public opinion was already done.
In the time since, Energiewende—the plan for the transition of the German energy system away from nuclear and coal generation and toward a renewables-based system—has proceeded apace, closing nuclear plants that were both safe and reliable. At the same time, the country’s plans to phase out coal generation have been continually delayed to avoid energy shortfalls.
In the more than a decade since Energiewende began, they have closed all but these last three plants. What do they have to show for it? Increasing energy prices, increasing reliance on imports from Russia, and a grid that relies increasingly on the unpredictable output of wind for a major portion of its generation.
In 2002, 20.4 percent of Germany’s electricity came from nuclear power. For a country that still generates nearly 30 percent of its electricity from coal to be so myopically focused instead to close down its remaining 6.2 percent of nuclear energy (before the last three plant closures) strikes as an unreasonable orientation of priorities. Especially considering that it also generates 43 percent of its power from wind that requires reliable backup capacity in order to function. Providing this backup capacity in the absence of nuclear power will require a combination of burning more coal, and importing more scarce natural gas.
As natural gas prices and supplies across Europe remain in flux this winter, Germany may struggle to meet its energy needs. This situation will give political leverage to Russian President Vladimir Putin who controls a large portion of Germany’s gas imports.
All of these consequences are the result of a decision that is based on irrational fear-mongering rather than the condition of the plants themselves. The ramifications of this decision will reverberate through Germany’s energy economy for decades to come.