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Germany Looks Ready For Nuclear Exit Number 4

It’s getting hard to keep count of Germany’s “exits.” I’m talking about those pertaining to nuclear energy. Let’s see. I think we’re between three and four now, but closer to four.

Nuclear exit number 1 began in 2000. The government back then consisted of the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens. The latter were in power for the first time, having grown out of the hippie counterculture of the 1970s, and in particular the German mass movement against nuclear energy. So Germany decided to phase out its nuclear power plants. 

Exit 2 happened in 2010. The government, by then consisting of the center-right Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats, decided to exit from the first exit and keep the remaining nuclear plants running. Exit 3 followed within a year, after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. It spooked the government into exiting from its own exit of the preceding exit. That is, Germany again began phasing out nuclear power. 

The country’s last three fission reactors are due to go offline at the end of this year. Bad timing, obviously. This is the year Russian President Vladimir Putin chose to attack Ukraine and declare economic war on the European Union. He’s already throttling the natural gas that used to gush from Russia to central Europe.

Germany, in particular, relies on that gas. It mainly needs the stuff to fuel factories and heat homes. But gas was also supposed to fill the gap in power generation left by the nuclear energy being phased out — which still accounted for 12% of electricity last year. 

The government dealing with this mess once again consists of the 2000 roster of Social Democrats and Greens, but now with the addition of the Free Democrats who were part of later exits. The result is cacophonous.

The Christian Democrats, now in opposition, are calling for an extension of the three nuclear plants still online. That could be done even without buying new fuel rods. The Free Democrats agree, but are treading carefully, lest they ruffle the tenuous coalition peace.

Others want to restart the reactors already offline as well — a group of 20 university professors is urging parliament to permanently exit all previous nuclear exits. An industry association even wants to invest in entirely new fission plants.

Germany’s European partners are also vociferous. They never understood Germany’s nuclear hysteria in the first place. France relies on fission for most of its electricity and is investing in more reactors. Cutting-edge nations such as Finland view nuclear power as a small but crucial part in any resilient energy mix. 

The EU’s eastern members, from Poland to Romania and Slovakia, are especially annoyed. They spent decades urging Germany not to make itself dependent on Russian gas and vulnerable to Putin’s blackmail. The Germans either ignored them or smugly lectured them on Kremlinology, refusing to acknowledge any connection between their policies on Russia, gas and fission.

Now those links are obvious. So the EU, trying hard to look united, is asking all member states to reduce gas usage by 15%. But some countries see that as bailing out the Germans for their own policy failures. As a Slovakian official puts it, why not start saving gas by firing up Germany’s nuclear reactors first?

The Dutch make a similar point. They have Europe’s largest gas field, in Groningen. But getting the hydrocarbons out of the ground causes earthquakes, so the Netherlands is phasing out production. Now Germany is asking its neighbor to rethink that exit, because it wants the Groningen gas to replace Putin’s. That would be easier to sell to Dutch voters if the Germans showed some flexibility on nuclear.

What many foreigners don’t appreciate, however, is that the German controversy is less a policy debate than a religious war — not unlike the American debates about guns or abortion, say. Many Germans have spent their entire lives protesting against the splitting of atoms. The Green Party’s base, in particular, teems with zealots who consider all nuclear energy evil, and any attempt to nuance the discussion as tantamount to treason.

But the Greens are in the government and have responsibility. They even run the relevant ministries — those for the environment and for commerce and energy. So the party’s leaders are dipping their toes into the discussion.

Germany has a gas problem, not an electricity problem, they argue. True up to a point. Keeping the nuclear reactors going would probably save only 4% of the country’s overall gas consumption, a far cry from the 15% the EU stipulates. But nobody is suggesting that this should be the only step — just that it’s one of several that Germans can’t afford to forego. 

Yes, nuclear fission has risks. One is the danger of accidents that leak radiation. Another is the problem of finding permanent repositories for the radioactive waste. But all forms of energy have risks. These have to be balanced against the risks of alternatives, and against benefits. 

Renewables such as the sun and wind are obviously the preferred option. But they fluctuate. And wind turbines sprawl over much more of the countryside and nature than reactors do. Gas and oil emit carbon — and often come from unsavory vendors like Putin. Coal — Germany’s default in the absence of nuclear and gas — is even dirtier. It bears most blame for accelerating climate change, the greatest risk of all. 

By contrast, the risks of fission energy seem manageable, especially with new technologies. Best of all, it emits no greenhouse gases. Nor does it stop when the sun goes down or the breeze dies. That’s why the International Energy Agency says that the world needs more, not less, of it.

Even religious wars eventually wear themselves out. My guess is that Germany’s leaders, including those who head the Greens, are secretly yearning to make peace. They’re just agonizing over how to communicate that to the public. Exit number 4 is getting closer.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

Germany Drew the Wrong Nuclear Lesson From Fukushima: Andreas Kluth

Germany’s Switch to Diesel From Gas Comes at a Cost: Javier Blas

Struggling to Stay Cool? So Is the Generator Powering Your Aircon: David Fickling

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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