The German exit of nuclear power generation in April is called madness by many, but why has a country known for rational decision done it? Is there any rationality or reasoning and are there any facts that support such a decision?
All who know may come to different and unexpected conclusions compared to what they initially thought.
Germany shut down its last 3 power plants in April 2023 that supplied 6% of Germany’s electricity. While it is heavily criticized internationally, I will explain why this is not necessarily a bad development, but also a good and positive decision and does not increase coal consumption in Germany at all, despite the media constantly spreading the narrative.
Many believe that Germany has increased coal-fired power generation by 1.5% by 2022 because of the phase-out of nuclear power, but this is false. The fact is that Germany has exported a lot of electricity to France, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, and Poland to stabilize their grids. Germany was again a net exporter of electricity in 2022 with a total of 26.28 TWh. Exports amounted to 62.05 TWh (56.99 TWh in 2021) and imports to 35.77 TWh (39.60 TWh in 2021). Net exports increased by 51.1% compared to 2021 (17.39 TWh).
As an example, a lot of German electricity has been exported to France because the nuclear power plants there are not functioning well due to low water in the rivers caused by climate change, maintenance issues, safety problems, and construction delays. In summary, Germany did not use more coal for its own electricity consumption last year, but to stabilize the grids of other European countries that asked for it. Without the increased export the phase-out of coal power plants would have been done as planned.
Another important topic that is often overlooked or not mentioned, the last remaining German power plants could not continue to operate because critical maintenance and safety measures were not implemented as a result of the phase-out plan in recent years. They were simply not safe to operate anymore. Skilled workers have also been cut in recent years and either has new jobs or are retired. Today, there is literally no one to keep them going, and relying on outside resources is not as safe as it may sound either if you get them at all. That is one of the reasons why all utilities who owned and operate the nuclear power plants didn’t want to extend their use. The narrative that the phase-out is coming from a crazy politically motivated anti-nuclear lobby is factually incorrect because it comes from the nuclear industry itself.
Even if Germany had decided politically to keep the plants online, at least for a while, they would have to be shut down for technical reasons to make them safe, even though there are no resources to run them and therefore they could stop producing electricity in the second quarter and probably even for the rest of 2023. A 2022 study confirms that “The German nuclear power plants do not meet the requirements of the current state of science and technology as it has to be applied for new licenses. However, complete compliance with the requirements of the applicable nuclear rules and regulations (SiAnf) has not even been demonstrated.”
So, the claim that Germany initiated the shutdown but had other options that it could have used first is factually incorrect. The phase-out of the last remaining nuclear power plants in Germany also had technological and safety reasons that cannot be addressed quickly.
Commercially the use of renewable energy sources, as practiced in Germany, reduces electricity costs instead of increasing them! In Germany, one of the countries with the highest electricity costs in Europe, 6% of the nuclear electric plants supply was shut down, while 9% of electricity from renewable energy sources was added during the same period which has a cost-decreasing impact. The industry and private households suffer from high energy costs therefore everything that can be done to reduce the increase is critically important for the economy.
In other words, nuclear electricity was exchanged for electricity from renewable sources. It is simply not true that Germany shut down nuclear power plants and started coal-fired power plants instead. However, it could be said that coal plants could be shut down first, but that is unfortunately for technical reasons as described above impossible. So, the argument that sounds like a possibility is unfortunately not a short-term option, and long-term Germany will be powered by sun and wind anyway.
Often mentioned but not seen in relation to Germany phasing out nuclear power generation is that an independent supply of electricity is critical for the political stability of a country. What happened in recent years in France or Hungary besides others, relying on and expanding nuclear power generation, is an example of how nuclear power plants pose a risk in times of climate change and cannot be considered a reliable source of energy.
With droughts on the rise in Europe in recent years and rivers drying up completely in France and parts of Europe, nuclear reactors can no longer be cooled, and many have had to be shut down. Droughts didn’t happen just once, but continuously and may get worse in the future. The so-called carbon-free nuclear power generation has been replaced mainly by energy imported from Germany, some of it generated in coal-fired power plants as is. The problems with water for cooling nuclear power plants remain and are getting worse every year, and there is no solution to this problem. The supposedly secure base power supply from nuclear power plants is a myth.
Another and even more important critical point that speaks against keeping the last 3 nuclear power plants online is the geopolitical risk that is taken if nuclear power generation is continued because the supply of all uranium fuel rods comes from Russia. For Hungary, the supply of nuclear technology and uranium rods from Russia makes the country dependent on the will of the leaders in the Kremlin. Germany paid a very high price for the strategic wrong approach to relying on the Russian gas and oil supply and no one wants to create any dependency on the country that actively tried to blackmail Germany in 2022. To create more pressure on Russia it is critical to cut the dependency German has on Russian supply to run the electricity generating plant and stop the nuclear power plants and not continuing it.
In light of the for many years plant phase-out the supply of uranium rods has been stopped long ago and delivery if a new order would have placed would take about 18 months which would Russia give the ability to blackmail Germany again. Some other countries stated e.g. Canada they could jump in and fill the gap but people underestimate that an entire established supply chain is needed with experienced resources to implement them and that doesn’t exist anymore neither with technical equipment nor skilled workers therefore there isn’t even the ability to extend the nuclear power plants if there would be political will and supply from Canada.
In other words, even if Germany would have decided to order new uranium rods the power plants would have been stopped for all of 2023 up to late 2024 anyway to cope with the supply of rods and a new ramp-up of expertise. In addition, a standing and not working nuclear power plant would consume a lot of capital as you need to keep it in good shape and that capital is much better invested in cheaper solar and wind power generation right now. From a timeline perspective and given the resources available the exit was for Germany a reasonable and well thought through decision.
Germany’s problem with nuclear waste is another point that is underestimated, because there is no storage capacity inside the country, although it has been unsuccessfully searched for 60 years. The strong belief is that if a country like Germany is unable to find safe and lasting storage for hundreds and thousands of years you may not find safe secure storage anywhere. But when you create nuclear waste, you should be responsible for it, and trading that responsibility for money and exporting the waste is ethically questionable and can create an industry that cares more about profit, not so much about safety while it should be the other way around. That this question is unsolved for generations begs the question if it ever can be solved.
After 60 years it is not foreseeable that a storage facility can be ever found, because nobody wants nuclear waste, which is dangerous for thousands of years, in the neighborhood. In addition, nuclear waste can be considered a constant remaining future threat as a dirty bomb could be assembled from e.g. terrorists who get hold of it.
For hundreds and thousands of years, nuclear waste must be stored safely against many unforeseeable risks, but long-term in hundreds of years it cannot be guaranteed to maintain what we call today safe and stable political systems. If that cannot be guaranteed for the longer future, why take the risk when there are good, cheap, and safe alternatives today?
All of that is true for Germany and all other countries including Finland which claims to have found storage for nuclear waste but the war in Ukraine has once again shown that nuclear facilities and nuclear waste can easily and faster than most imagine used in a war to blackmail the enemy and if he doesn’t comply you bomb it.
The accident in Chornobyl, which led to nuclear fallout in Germany, also made an entire generation aware that it is also impossible to rule out the possibility of something like this happening again. Fukushima was another good example of how the belief that you can control everything around nuclear power with high technology was born out of hubris, and there are many more examples where radioactivity has leaked. The large amount of radioactive water at Fukushima that is released into the sea will contaminate fish or plants in one way or another for hundreds and thousands of years, which will be eaten by other fish until they are later eaten by humans. Dilution may be a theoretical solution, but no one can deny that radioactivity that should never have belonged in our environment at this strength is now out there.
Personally am one of the people who experienced the nuclear fallout in Germany when Chornobyl happened, and it’s not just that the Russian government lied at the time, but also the German government has done it and all the neighboring countries too. It was said that everything was safe and secure, but statistics in the following years proved a strong correlation between increasing numbers of miscarriages, cancer, and other diseases, in areas where stronger radioactivity from the Chornobyl accident was measured. That you can’t trust your Government in the case of a nuclear accident has been proven everywhere to be true leading to a strong mistrust against even considering using that technology in Germany.
In Eastern Bavaria today, 40 years after the accident, it is still recommended not to eat too many mushrooms or wild boar and deer meat because it is still highly contaminated and the same is true for neighboring countries. Experts didn’t believe the radioactivity will remain that long and that strong, but the truth is it still is.
All of these are facts and regardless of if you believe it can’t happen with the safer technology of today all these German people experiencing the still existing danger of it can and don’t want to trust engineers and politicians who evidently didn’t tell the truth to avoid a panic. In that respect, the German exit from nuclear power generation is partly also an emotional decision but one that should be respected.
Some people claim that fewer people died from a nuclear accident than from the effects of climate change, which is true, but does that argument matter to all the people who died and got sick or died early from cancer or never had babies? I say it doesn’t. You cannot trade climate deaths against deaths from nuclear accidents because every early death and disease is tragic and should be avoided at all costs.
All together I fully agree that the timing of the German nuclear power generation exit is bad and if there would have been an option or alternative to postpone it even the Green Party in the Government would have supported a continuation of the nuclear power plants to reduce carbon emissions, but the situation today does not allow it for technical, safety, resource and political reasons.
Germany has produced last year and in Q1 2023 more than 50% of its energy from renewable sources and the aggressive plans from the Government to scale that up to 80% are implemented and in execution.
However, there should not be any misunderstanding that the late exit and high percentage of coal-produced heat and electricity are very bad for climate change and an earlier exit should have been planned. The Unions and the SPD party with the now in-charge Chancellor Scholz as a leading figure delayed the earlier exit of coal and lignite to please their voters which are mainly seen in the blue-collar community.
The strategy to use comparably cleaner Russian gas was as we all know not a good strategy anymore after Russia decided to start an unprovoked war in Ukraine. Then Germany showed its weakness with former Chancellor Merkel over two decades implementing a policy to rely fully on the Russian oil and gas supply.
Long term there is no place for an energy supply that is expensive, unreliable, or one that poses a geopolitical risk and creates dangerous waste therefore neither coal, gas oil, or nuclear power generation is a good choice.
Phasing out nuclear power was not an easy decision for Germany but given the circumstances it was the only reasonable and meaningful one in the current situation. Even though not everyone may be happy that Germany is now free of nuclear power generation, safety is an aspect that comes first and where no compromises should be made.