(This is a slightly modified version of the full piece published in Clean Energy Wire)
Germany on Friday (Dec 31) shut down three of the six nuclear plants it still has in operation, a year before the country draws the final curtain on its decades-long use of atomic power.
With three (Grohnde, Gundremmingen C and Brokdorf)) out of six remaining reactors shuttered, only three (with a combined capacity of 4 GW) will remain in service throughout 2022 (Isar 2, Emsland and Neckarwestheim 2).
From having a share of 22.2 percent in total electricity generation in 2010, the contribution of nuclear decreased to 11 percent in 2020. At the same time, renewables such as wind, solar PV and biogas provided around 45 percent of power generation in 2020.
German nuclear phase-out
In 2000, the then coalition government of Social Democrats and the Green Party led by Gerhard Schroeder agreed to phase out nuclear power by limiting the lifespan of nuclear power stations to about 32 years – meaning the last would be retired around 2022.
In 2010, a new government under Chancellor Angela Merkel extended the operating time of nuclear plants by up to 14 years. This decision was reversed only months later in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima accident, when eight German nuclear plants were permanently shut down, and the federal parliament voted to limit the operation of the remaining nine, with the last three to go offline.
How did the nuclear phase-out come about in Germany?
The conviction that nuclear power should not be part of Germany’s energy mix has a long history and is deeply rooted in German society. After years of protests against nuclear power station projects in several locations, and fuelled by the accident at Three Mile Island (U.S.) in 1979 and the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, the anti-nuclear movement resulted in no new commercial reactors being built in Germany after 1989.
The German government since 2011 has remained steadfast in its decision despite going through a difficult process of securing the money from reactor operators to ensure their safe deconstruction and storage of radioactive waste, initiating the search for a permanent waste storage facility, and weathering the legal proceedings following the not-quite constitutional compensation regulations in the nuclear exit law.
SPD environment minister Svenja Schulze said at the 2021 anniversary of Angela Merkel reiterated in her last summer press conferences before the end of her chancellorship, that “the nuclear phase-out is the right thing to do for Germany”, adding that this could be seen differently by other countries and activists who push for climate neutrality. “I don't think nuclear energy is a sustainable form of energy in the long term,” Merkel said.
Very few voices in support of nuclear energy
In the past months, some energy and industry managers, researchers and climate activists and pro-nuclear groups have again made a case for the use of nuclear power as a stable and low-in-CO2 form of energy that could help Germany achieve its climate targets. Similarly, there have been calls to extend the lifetime of the existing reactors to the end of the decade to deliver low carbon energy during a time when renewable capacities are not yet plentiful enough to support the whole economy and to make it easier to end the use of coal.
Prominent automobile industry researcher Ferdinand Dudenhöffer has argued that with the rising demand of power from a growing electric car fleet and other sectors such as heating and industry, Germany needs the extra power production from nuclear plants.
Nuclear proponents also argue that Germany should embrace small modular nuclear reactors as advertised by Microsoft founder Bill Gates
Despite frequent articles and opinion pieces in its favour, the majority of the population (in most polls), parliament, the government and the energy industry are highly unlikely to take these arguments to heart, let alone act on them (see above “What stakeholders think”). It is "completely out of the question" that German nuclear power plants will get another lifetime extension, said Rainer Baake. "Because the operators don't want it. Because there is no serious force in politics that is pursuing a lifetime extension, and the topic played no role in the coalition negotiations. Voters have not forgotten Chernobyl and Fukushima and know that there are better alternatives."
Will Germany emit more CO2 because of the nuclear phase-out?
Some climate activists, researchers, and the pro-nuclear lobby argue that if Germany had decided to reduce coal power consumption before it stopped using nuclear power, it would have prevented CO2 emissions. “From a pure emissions perspective, it was always a questionable idea to shut down German nuclear before the plants have reached the end of their lifetime,” Hanns Koenig, head of commissioned projects at Aurora Energy Research told bloomberg.
The Federal Environment Agency uses the following emission estimates: Onshore wind 10 grams CO2equivalent per kilowatt-hour, solar PV 67g CO2eq /kWh, nuclear 68g CO2eq /kWh, natural gas 430g CO2eq /kWh, lignite more than 1kg CO2eq /kWh.
Pro-nuclear activists Rainer Moormann, who used to be a physical chemist at the Jülich Research Centre, and Anna Veronika Wendland - from the Herder Institute for Historical Research on Eastern Central Europe in Marburg - argued in 2020 that leaving the last six nuclear power stations running would have enabled Germany to shut down all of North Rhine-Westphalia’s lignite plants – by reversing the decision to shut down the last six reactors in 2021 and 2022 and let them run until the end of the decade Germany’s total CO2 emissions could be reduced by 10 percent, they estimated.
Economists of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) conclude in a recent paper that “the decline in nuclear power will temporarily lead to a higher use of fossil energies and imports, which will increase CO2 emissions in the short term. However, these should be quickly reduced by the accelerated expansion of renewable energies.” In the short term, nuclear power will indeed be substituted by fossil power plants and via imports. Imports increase by 15 terawatt-hours (TWh), emissions will be around 40 million tonnes CO2 higher, according to the DIW. Other research shows that in the context of the overall cap of the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), rising emissions in Germany would be compensated by lower emissions in other countries, therefore keeping overall emissions stable and, at the same time, seeing a slight rise in the price for CO2 allowances.
Overall, renewables are now better placed to prevent carbon emissions than nuclear, physicist Amory B. Lovins, adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University concludes in an op-ed for Bloomberg Law: "Renewables swelled supply and displaced carbon as much every 38 hours as nuclear did all year. As of early December, 2021’s score looks like nuclear –3 GW, renewables +290 GW. Game over."
No nuclear, no coal: Will the lights stay on?
Germany’s conventional power generation capacity is indeed beginning to dwindle. In December 2022, the country will have over 23 gigawatts (GW) less nuclear power capacity than ten years ago. By the end of 2022, some 13.9 GW of lignite and hard coal-fired power stations will be closed according to the coal exit law – and the new government wants to make a coal exit by 2030 possible.
In the past 20 years, renewable capacity grew from 12 gigawatt in 2000 to 132 gigawatt in 2020, with wind and solar PV installations providing the largest share. In the same year, renewable power made up over 45 percent of Germany’s power consumption and, for the first time, became the single biggest contributor, ahead of coal.
While dealing with a growing share of weather-dependent renewables poses challenges and requires Germany’s power grids to be adapted to high (wind) power production in the north to be transferred to the industrial centres of the south, grid operators as well as the government generally agree that the lights will stay on. New appliances will be needed to keep the grid stable and the need for so called re-dispatch measures to balance supply and demand in all regions when nuclear power plants in the south are switched off will likely become more frequent.
Modelling by researchers also shows that with the continued growth of renewables and the mentioned grid congestion management, Germany’s supply will remain secured. Germany still has overcapacities, making it a net-exporter of power. It has one of the most stable electricity systems in the world with very little outage times. Coal-fired power stations can be kept in a reserve, if their supply is crucial at times of emergency. The new government plans to establish a stress test for supply security; and the winter months of 2022 are likely going to provide a “real life” stress test for Europe’s and Germany’s energy supply, as gas and power prices are soaring amid an energy crunch brought on by tight gas supplies.
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