The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Germany’s anxiety about nuclear energy is leading to nonsensical policy

Germany shut down this nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen at the turn of the year as it phases out nuclear power. (Lukas Barth/Reuters)
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Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and journalist, is the author of “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.”

A modest display of pyrotechnics at the Brandenburg Gate accompanied by the ill-fitting tune of “Auld Lang Syne” drifting through the empty streets of Berlin — New Year’s Eve in Germany was again a rather subdued affair because of rising coronavirus infections. But not in the small village of Grohnde in Lower Saxony, where loud cheers could be heard at midnight. A group of around 100 people had gathered there in front of the giant twin towers that could be seen from miles around. They had come to celebrate what they called a “historic moment.” One of Germany’s oldest nuclear power plants had just ceased operation.

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.

The Grohnde plant is a perfect example of what Germany is giving up. It was one of the most productive nuclear power plants in the world. It provided enough electricity to cover 15 percent of Lower Saxony’s annual energy needs single-handedly, saving 10 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year in the process. The site even made headlines in February 2021 for producing more electricity than any other nuclear power plant in the world. Now it will have to be dismantled at a cost of around 1 billion euros.

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."

There are historical reasons for Germany’s unique skepticism. For more than four decades, the Iron Curtain ran right through the country. If the Cold War had turned hot, Germany would have been on the front lines of a nuclear battlefield. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had stationed nuclear weapons on German soil. Anti-nuclear anxieties led to an amalgamation of pacifism and environmentalism. The politicians who made the decision to phase out nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 were all children of the tense world of divided Germany — not least then-Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had grown up in East Germany and trained there as a physicist.

German environmental activists have long argued that nuclear reactors pose a serious security risk to the country, and Fukushima seemed to confirm this. But many experts agree that safety standards in Germany are so stringent and the technology permanently updated that the remaining risks are negligible. So far, no major incidents have blemished the safety record of civilian nuclear energy in Germany. Even Japan has moved on from 2011 and continues to rely on nuclear plants to combat climate change.

But German politics can’t remain stuck in the 20th century. The largest country in Europe has a voracious demand for energy. As German public transport, heating systems and cars switch from fossil fuels to electricity, most experts predict a further rise in electricity demand. Some estimate an increase of 34 percent by 2030.

Meanwhile, renewables provide only 42 percent of Germany’s energy. The rest is still supplied by coal, nuclear power and imports. Germany’s new government aims to increase the margin to 80 percent by 2030, but this is ambitious and could have nasty side effects. Ironically, the post-Merkel administration has already had to agree to loosen legislation for environmental protection when it comes to building up renewables. Two percent of Germany’s land mass is designated for the use of wind turbines; most of that area will have to be deforested first.

Germany’s coal plants are also due to be shut by 2030, which will make the country heavily dependent on energy imports. Germany buys over half of its natural gas from Russia, and with the new pipeline Nord Stream 2 nearly complete, this proportion might well increase, giving Moscow immense power over Germany. Even if Germany were to import its energy from elsewhere (Norway is the second largest source of imports), the situation would be absurd. Why give up your own, relatively green, nuclear energy to buy electricity that was generated in nuclear, coal or gas plants elsewhere?

Germany’s decision to give up efficient and perfectly serviceable nuclear plants is nothing but shortsighted. Its neighbors have come to terms with the necessity of retaining nuclear energy while investment in renewable technology is underway. Yet by succumbing to its lingering Cold War fears, Germany is ultimately putting its fate in the hands of others.