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Opinion Germany must keep — and expand — nuclear power

Pipework at the gas receiving station of the halted Nord Stream 2 project, on the site of a former nuclear power plant, in Lubmin, Germany, on April 5. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Energiewende is the stereotypically polysyllabic moniker Germany came up with for its ambitious national policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions 65 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, and 88 percent by 2040. Roughly translatable into English as “energy transformation,” the Energiewende has already cost Germany many billions of dollars; cumulative investment in renewables is on course to hit $580 billion by 2025. Germany has made significant progress, with 2021 emissions 38.7 percent below 1990 levels. And yet the Germans have made everything harder for themselves by pursuing a carbon-free future without resorting to nuclear power. In fact, a key aspect of the Energiewende is a total phaseout of this zero-carbon energy source by the end of this year. Never wise, this policy has been exposed as an outright disaster by the war in Ukraine and resulting abandonment of the fuel that was supposed to take nuclear’s place during the broader transition: Russian natural gas.

For its own sake and for the sake of the broader European economy, Germany must reverse course and retain nuclear power. As an initial step, that would mean keeping its last three remaining reactors, which still produce about 6 percent of the country’s total electricity, in operation past Dec. 31. Then Berlin must find ways to increase its nuclear energy capability, which in March 2011 consisted of 17 reactors, producing one-quarter of all German electric power. That was when the government then led by Chancellor Angela Merkel — reversing a promise on which she campaigned in 2009 — decided to zero out the reactors by 2022 in overreaction to a public panic over the Fukushima accident in Japan. As that sequence of events suggests, Germans’ attitudes about nuclear power have been unusually and irrationally anxious even though in their country it has by and large compiled an excellent safety record. The Green Party, a key member of the current coalition government, grew out of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s.

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For all those reasons, it will be difficult for Berlin to do what is right and necessary now. Fortunately, a new trend in German public opinion seems to be making it politically possible. A poll last month found that 70 percent of Germans favor keeping the nuclear plants in operation for at least some time past Dec. 31. A survey this month found that only 15 percent support completing the phaseout this year, with 41 percent supporting an extension “for some months” and 41 percent favoring “long-term” continuation. This creates an opening for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat; he recently said that extending operation of the last three nuclear plants “might make sense,” pending a “stress test” of the facilities. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threw Europe into crisis, Mr. Scholz has shown a tendency to oscillate between bold policy departures — he promised to boost German military spending — and reversion to caution; he slow-walked weapons shipments to Ukraine. On nuclear energy policy, the times call for Mr. Scholz to get back in touch with his bold side.

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