Why the Germans remain so nervous about nuclear power

TIT ENDS of 2021 brought mixed news for the German anti-nuclear crowd. On December 6, the swarm of activists who had gathered outside the Brokdorf nuclear power plant in northern Germany, every month for the 36 years it had been in operation, traded their usual thermos for champagne. Because, on December 31, Brokdorf, whose construction had inspired some of the most virulent protests in German history, was one of the three nuclear power stations permanently shut down. The other three will be closed by the end of this year, concluding a nuclear phase-out that has been underway for two decades.

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Then came the downer. Just before midnight on December 31, after months of procrastination, the European Commission circulated a draft energy “taxonomy” that called natural gas and nuclear fission sustainable, with conditions. The taxonomy, which must be finalized and then approved by the EUof the 27 governments and the European Parliament, is designed to direct investments towards climate-friendly projects. But if the goal was to please everyone by finding room for all but the dirtiest fuels, it failed in Germany. Robert Habeck, vice-chancellor and co-leader of the Green Party, called the project “greenwashing”, citing concerns about safety and nuclear waste. A deputy of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who heads the ruling coalition, compared (ridiculously) supporters of nuclear to anti-vaccines.

Atomic fission was once the future in Germany. This was before the emergence of the world’s most enduring anti-nuclear movement in the mid-1970s. Unlike environmental groups in some other countries, explains Jan-Henrik Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Theory, the German Greens are the direct result of the anti-nuclear campaign. Its precepts guided their actions in state parliaments as well as in the national parliament, culminating in a decision of a SPD-Green coalition in 2000 to abandon nuclear power for good. In 2010, Angela Merkel partially reversed this decision. Less than a year later, amid huge protests in the wake of the Fukushima collapse in Japan, she made the biggest U-turn of his career and agreed to shut down all German nuclear power plants by 2022.

A catastrophe, say the critics. Nuclear power has virtually no carbon emissions and provides a constant baseline supply, unlike intermittent renewables. While new plants are expensive and create waste, the premature dismantling of old ones seems doomed, especially when bureaucracy and bottlenecks slow the deployment of renewables. In the short term, the burning of coal and gas may increase to fill the gap. And the transition to electric cars and the need for clean hydrogen will require even more electricity, and therefore an even greater deployment of renewable sources.

Many Germans deny that scrapping nuclear has increased emissions than they otherwise would have been. Emissions from power generation have declined even as nuclear power plants have closed. In addition, they argue, renewable energies would not have grown so rapidly if nuclear power had been preserved. “There was a clear link between the exit from nuclear and the entry of renewable energies,” explains Simon Müller, Germany director of Agora Energiewende, a think tank. The coalition that sought to stop nuclear power in 2000 also introduced sweeping subsidies for renewable energy under Germany Energiewende, or the energetic reversal. While the subsidies hurt German consumers, who have long faced Europe’s most expensive electricity, the rest of the world has benefited from the cheaper photovoltaic cells and wind turbines they have made possible.

But Germany Sonderweg (special route) in energy policy is not to the taste of countries with different histories, policies and energy mixes. France is making a big bet on nuclear power; several central European countries see it as a way to wean themselves off coal. Many do not like the agitated tone in Berlin, especially when Germany increases Russian gas imports.

Germany is unlikely to attempt to overturn the committee’s proposals, which would require a large majority of EU countries. But it will not turn away from its anti-nuclear and pro-gas course: the committee has no say in the energy choices of countries. As the EU is working on laws to achieve its ambition to become carbon-free by 2050, and fears of a winter energy crisis grow, these New Years gaiters herald bigger rows. â– 

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Nein, danke!”

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