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Nuclear exit haunts Germany as country enters crucial period for climate action

SNL Image

A cooling tower at a former nuclear plant in Germany is detonated in August 2019.
Source: AP Photo

On the eve of a new law that will aim to phase out coal-fired electricity in Germany, Europe's largest economy is forced to grapple with its decision to quit another energy source: nuclear.

The country is set to take its last reactor offline in 2022, completing one of the most consequential energy policies of the past decade that, despite broad public and political support, has stark implications for achieving emissions reductions.

While the nuclear exit is close at hand, coal will remain part of the energy mix until 2038 under a plan drawn up by a government-appointed commission. The timeline has yet to be turned into law, but critics of the "Atomausstieg" contend that switching off fossil-free nukes is the main reason Germany will be hooked on polluting coal for much longer.

"It's framed by some as this double burden — exiting nuclear and coal at the same time," said Alexander Reitzenstein, a policy adviser at E3G, an environmental think tank that supports the nuclear phaseout. While nuclear power production has dropped by almost half since 2010, as plants have been shuttered one by one, coal has declined more slowly and still makes up around a third of Germany's power mix.

A working paper released in December 2019 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a U.S.-based nonprofit, estimated that lost nuclear electricity production due to the phaseout was replaced primarily by coal, as well as power imports. The resulting social cost, mostly through higher mortality risk because of air pollution, is approximately $12 billion per year and far higher than the money saved on nuclear waste disposal, the paper's authors calculated.

Reitzenstein points out that greenhouse gas emissions in Germany fell by more than 50 million tonnes last year, according to an analysis by Agora Energiewende, another think tank. The drop was steeper than many expected and puts Germany within reach of its target to reduce emissions by 40% by the end of 2020 — a key legacy for long-reigning Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It also supports the view that quitting both coal and nuclear power "can go hand in hand," Reitzenstein said. "But if the renewable expansion slows in the next few years, it will be challenging" to maintain that trajectory, he added.

SNL Image

That concern is a valid one. While offshore wind and solar power are thriving, with increasingly lower or even no subsidies, the onshore wind industry in Germany has faltered. Onshore turbines are the largest clean energy source in Germany, with more than 53 GW of capacity, but the industry has nearly ground to a halt in the face of onerous local licensing regimes and lawsuits.

The government, critics say, is now making matters worse by proposing stricter distance rules for turbines instead of solving the public acceptance issue.

"Wind is the workhorse of the energy transition, and without wind power, we cannot succeed in phasing out coal or meeting our climate protection targets," said Patrick Graichen, director of Agora Energiewende. "The energy transition is entering the 2020s with an expensive mortgage."

'Rock solid' consensus

The discussion around whether the nuclear exit was too hasty, or altogether ill-advised, keeps cropping up now and again in Germany, usually in connection with the rollout of renewables and the future stability of the power system. Nuclear and coal are both baseload fuels that can generate stable power, even when solar or wind parks lie idle.

In December 2019, the energy spokesman for Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, told German news magazine Der Spiegel he thought the decision to exit the fuel had been a mistake — sparking speculation about possible extensions for power plants that was quickly quashed by the government.

Earlier in the year, officials struck down similar calls from other conservative parliamentarians and even Volkswagen AG CEO Herbert Diess, who was broadly condemned for suggesting that Germany should first exit coal in order to protect the climate.

SNL Image

The decision to get out of nuclear by 2022 was originally made by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens in 2002, following decades of environmental protests against nuclear power. Merkel's new government first scrapped the decision when it came into power in 2010, but then overturned its strategy a year later in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, when lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to revert to the original phaseout schedule.

With Fukushima, "there was no chance for the [Christian Democrats] to keep that position anymore," Reitzenstein said. "They were forced to decide this phaseout."

READ: Dynamics shifting on Europe's nuclear battleground amid Brexit, German phaseout

Ever since, broad agreement has prevailed on the issue. Last year, a survey by Friends of the Earth Germany, an environmental group, found that 62% of the population continues to favor the current timeline or an even faster exit.

"The nuclear consensus is rock solid," Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said in a statement on the occasion of the latest shutdown of a nuclear plant on Dec. 31, 2019, which left six remaining across the country.

"Especially in times when individuals are promoting nuclear power as supposed climate savers, it is important to emphasize that nuclear power does not solve a single problem, but it creates new problems for a million years," Schulze said, specifically referencing the issue of storing spent nuclear fuel.

No plan B

SNL ImageEnvironmental protesters held a vigil at the Philippsburg nuclear power plant in Germany on the eve of its shutdown in December 2019.
Source: BUND

Nowadays, supporters of the exit can also count the remaining operators of nuclear plants in Germany — utilities RWE AG, E.ON SE and EnBW Energie Baden-Württemberg AG — among their ranks.

Now that the phaseout is well underway, all three companies argue strongly against any lifetime extensions, not least because that would have required investing in equipment and staff a long time ago. Still, some bitterness remains about the closures.

"We already said it back then: this is a wrong decision in terms of climate policy," Volker Raffel, a spokesman for PreussenElektra GmbH, E.ON's nuclear subsidiary, said in an interview. PreussenElektra runs half of Germany's remaining nuclear plants.

Raffel said the likelihood that Germany would miss its long-term climate targets because of the premature exit from nuclear is still high. Without nuclear power, the Hambach Forest would have been razed a long time ago, he said, referring to a contentious piece of woodland RWE wants to clear in order to expand a lignite mine.

For those arguing for lifetime extensions, Raffel has a simple message: "We don't have a plan B," he said, echoing comments from the other two operators. "We are already past the point of no return."