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Opinion: On climate change – Germany has chosen to stand on the wrong side of history

Opinion: On climate change – Germany has chosen to stand on the wrong side of history

The German nuclear power plant Grafenrheinfeld before it was decommissioned in 2015. Photo credit: Christian VisualBeo Horvat – CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.

By Anders Lorenzen

As Germany completed its nuclear phase-out earlier this month, it becomes clear that Europe’s economic and industrial powerhouse is further away from climate action than almost every single EU member country. 

It is also clear that the stubborn and stupid economic/climate decision to phase out nuclear power must stand as one of the country’s biggest mistakes.  It is a decision that, if you look at the facts, no longer makes sense,  and it has more to do with ideology than facts.

The facts

The facts are pretty simple. 

The country announced its nuclear phase-out on the back of the Fukushima incident in Japan in 2011. The majority of the public might have backed an energy system free of nuclear energy, but fresh polling shows that the mood in the country has now changed and two-thirds of the public support keeping them open. 

The other fact is that a country that portrays itself as a green leader and has invested more public money in renewables than any other country has little to show for it. The coal share of the electricity mix is alarmingly high at 31%, amongst the highest in the EU and at least the highest amongst the richest and most developed EU countries. In comparison, the UK and France have more or less eradicated coal from their electricity systems by continuing to support nuclear energy.

While Germany has already decommissioned most of its nuclear reactors, it is also significant how inadequately renewables will cover the lost electricity capacity. The final three reactors, for example, which closed down earlier this month, will only be covered 6% by renewables, and that renewable capacity could have been used to decarbonise coal and other fossil fuels rather than to replace already decarbonised electricity capacity.

It is hard to work out what motivated Germany’s government to want to decommission nuclear energy. The country is surrounded by other nuclear power nations. On the border with Switzerland, there are nuclear power plants as close as 100 km away, and Germany will continue to import nuclear-produced electricity from France.

Yes or no to nuclear

This is not really an argument about whether you are for or against nuclear energy, but it is very much about pragmatism and what makes economic sense and what is the best tool to quickly reduce emissions. 

As I and others have previously argued, you can still oppose nuclear and support keeping the remaining nuclear plants open, until the end of their lifetimes. What makes Germany’s decision so perverse is that you’re literally shutting down nuclear plants that still have plenty of years left to run. Also that renewables, instead of replacing other fossil fuels, must now replace another low-carbon energy source. 

It is also a whole other argument when it comes to whether you support building new nuclear energy infrastructure. Should that effort rather go towards the massive expansion of renewables as well as hydrogen and battery technology and other emerging technologies? 

But we are literally talking about existing nuclear energy infrastructure. The most sensible argument for a German government wanting to rid itself of nuclear energy would be to set a decommission date when those plants will be near the end of their lifetimes, and not make hasty emotional decisions that do not make economic or energy sense. That would also give renewables plenty of time to be scaled up.

But by taking this immature decision, the German government is delaying quitting fossil fuels which could have serious climate change consequences and put at risk energy security concerns. Such decisions will make it much harder for Germany to quickly wean itself off Russian gas which the European Union (EU) is committed to.

Not an argument against renewables

Nor is this an argument against renewable energy.  I remain firmly in the camp that supports keeping existing nuclear as well as building much more nuclear energy infrastructure, and at the same time expanding renewables and investing in immature technologies such as floating offshore wind, hydrogen, geothermal, battery technology and so on. 

I once was of the opinion that the world can be fully powered by renewable energy, and I still believe that – but I have started to wonder if that is desirable. I much prefer a balanced energy mix that involves a huge amount of baseload nuclear energy. And until we have sufficient and cheap energy storage and increased efficiency of wind and solar so that less land is required, I will continue to be in favour of this idea. 

The risk of climate change is so serious that we cannot afford to take any low-carbon technologies off the table, we need to construct, construct, construct.

I take optimism from the fact that German together with Austria seems to be an outlier. New nuclear projects have recently been announced in Europe (for example, most recently in Finland) and worldwide, and public opinion indicates that more and more people are now in favour of nuclear energy.

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