Why can’t Germany phase out nuclear energy? | Economy | DW

The steam column can be seen from afar, but finding the nuclear reactor is not that easy. That Emsland nuclear power plant is hidden between trees and a chemical factory about ten kilometers south of the small town of Lingen in Lower Saxony.

“Honestly, you forget it’s there,” Christine, a 44-year-old who grew up in the area, told DW. “And you trust and hope that everything will be fine.”

The Emsland reactor is one of the last three nuclear power plants in Germany. All three should be switched off forever on New Year’s Eve of this year and with it the Nuclear phase-out in Germany complete. But then Russia invaded Ukraine.

“Actually, I consider myself anti-nuclear,” says Christine. “But I have to admit that you see the situation a little differently now.”

A turning point in Germany

Until recently, Russia was an important energy partner for Germany, providing the country with most of the oil and electricity it needs natural gas delivered. However, the war in Ukraine has destroyed this partnership and has meant that Germany has to look for alternative sources of supply in the winter months and that energy prices have skyrocketed.

Now the country is rethinking its Strategy for phasing out nuclear energy. Today, the three existing nuclear reactors in Germany produce about six percent of the electricity. In October, Chancellor Olaf Scholz ordered the country’s three remaining nuclear power plants to continue operating until mid-April 2023.

A mistake, believes nuclear power opponent Alexander Vent from Lingen, who works on a voluntary basis for the AgIEL alliance.

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“Everyone’s always talking about lifetime extensions, but we should be talking a lot more about expanding renewable energy,” said Vent. That Nuclear risk is simply too big, and he is also shocked that, despite numerous sanctions against Russia, Europe is still importing Russian uranium and that Lingen, with its fuel element factory, is part of this complex.

Some experts estimate that the EU is more dependent on Russia for nuclear energy than for natural gas, because, according to the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), around 40 percent of the world’s enriched uranium comes from Russia and Kazakhstan, which is loyal to the Kremlin.

Green label for nuclear power

Unlike Germany, they want stick to nuclear energy in the longer term. From 2023 it is to be classified as climate-friendly, which would enable further investments.

The Lingen electrician Franz-Josef Thiering, who has worked in the nuclear industry for many years, believes that this is the right step. After all, this is reliable and relatively low-emission energy. During the interview with DW, he pulls out a glass-encased artificial uranium plate the size of a small fingernail. “Two such plates can supply an average household in Germany with electricity for a year,” says Thiering.

“That fascinates me,” he says. “That’s physics.”

Growing energy demand

It’s foolish to neglect the importance of the electricity generated by Germany’s nuclear power plants as the country tries to make the transition to green energy, says Thiering.

“We will need more electricity in the future. That’s a fact,” he says, referring to the increasing demand for electric cars and heat pumps. “And six percent can be a lot if it’s nothing new [als Ersatz] are. We would lose six percent, although we actually need more.”

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Many Germans seem to agree. While the majority of the population was in favor of phasing out nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, according to an ARD poll in August of this year, over 80 percent were in favor of extending the operating lives of the existing German nuclear reactors.

Fear of the GAU

However, the fear of a nuclear catastrophe and the unresolved question of what to do with the radioactive nuclear waste has prompted critics of a lifetime extension to act. Claudia Kemfert, professor of energy economics at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, points to Germany’s neighbor France, which is highly dependent on nuclear energy.

“Half of the new nuclear power plants [in Frankreich] are offline because they have security issues,” Kemfert told DW.[…] In Germany we have the same problem. The safety inspections have not been carried out for over 15 years. And we urgently need to catch up to see if we have the same problem as in France.”

She also points out that nuclear power is a poor substitute for natural gas, which can also be used for heating, not just electricity.

Less CO2 emissions with nuclear power

Still, many believe nuclear power is better than a fallback to burning coal, another strategy Germany resorted to during the energy crisis. According to Dutch anti-nuclear group WISE, nuclear power plants emit 117 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, while burning lignite causes more than 1000 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour.

Despite the changed circumstances, Thiering does not believe that this temporary extension will lead to a real nuclear renaissance in Germany.

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“I think we’re really only talking about a short time here,” he says. “Just to tide over.”

The text has been adapted from English.

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