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28 Dec 2021, 10:18
Kerstine Appunn

Q&A: Why is Germany phasing out nuclear power and why now?

Nuclear power station Isar - one of the three remaining plants in Germany. To be closed in December 2022. Photo: Preussen Elektra.
Nuclear power station Isar - one of the three remaining plants in Germany. To be closed in December 2022. Photo: Preussen Elektra.

Germany’s energy transition is not only its main means for decarbonising the economy and creating an industrialised nation fed by renewable electricity to reach a 2045 climate neutrality target. The country’s famous Energiewende has also always been marked as an example to other countries of how such a transition is possible. But there is one aspect of it that is widely causing wonder and sometimes disbelieve: the nuclear phase-out. Why, at a time when emissions from fossil energy sources have to be reduced as fast as possible - and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV cannot (yet) support the country’s electricity needs – is Germany discontinuing the use of nuclear power, which is low in CO2. What are the reasons, repercussions, and benefits of this and how will it affect the country’s CO2 footprint, energy mix and supply security?

Content

Facts of the German nuclear phase-out

How did the nuclear phase-out come about in Germany?

Why the nuclear phase-out was the enabler of the energy transition

What do different stakeholders in Germany think about the nuclear exit?

Is there still a debate to continue the use of nuclear power and could its proponents succeed?

Why isn’t Germany phasing out coal before nuclear?

Will Germany emit more CO2 because of the nuclear phase-out?

No nuclear, no coal: Will the lights stay on?

How does Germany want to make net-zero happen without nuclear?

Why doesn’t Germany get an energy system with both renewables AND nuclear?

Will Germany become dependent on (nuclear) power imports from abroad?

What’s more expensive – renewables or nuclear?

Nuclear power in the EU taxonomy and Germany’s position

Shouldn’t Germany – like other countries – embrace and support the use of new small modular reactors?

What is different in Germany compared to other countries in Europe which embrace nuclear as a CO2-free solution?

 

Facts of the German nuclear phase-out

The last nuclear power plant in Germany will cease operation in December 2022. This definitive end-date is part of the 2011 Nuclear Energy Act (Atomgesetz) which withdrew the authorisation to operate nuclear reactors for power generation according to a phase-out schedule. 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. After three out of six remaining reactors are shuttered in December 2021 (Grohnde, Gundremmingen C and Brokdorf), only three (with a combined capacity of 4 GW) will remain in service throughout 2022 (Isar 2, Emsland and Neckarwestheim 2).

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.

When the Social Democrats and Green Party took over from a conservative government in 1998, they agreed a “nuclear consensus” with the big utilities operating the nuclear station fleet. By giving them certain power generation allocations, the last plant would be closed in 2022.

In 2010, a new conservative government under Angela Merkel amended this agreement, thereby extending the stations’ operating time by eight years for seven nuclear plants and 14 years for the remaining ten.

But after the accident in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, Merkel’s cabinet mothballed Germany’s oldest reactors for three months, before proposing to shut them down for good and phase-out the operation of the remaining nine plants by 2022.

Why the nuclear phase-out was the enabler of the energy transition

The reasons vary on why individual countries initially decided to commit to climate action, reduce the use of fossil fuels and, in 2015, sign the Paris Agreement which should lead all nations onto a path towards net-zero emissions. For some it was a question of securing a domestic power supply with the help of renewables. For some it only became a feasible idea after prices for wind and solar power installations dropped considerably, while others reacted to the brewing climate crisis and international pressure to act. The starting point of the energy transition in Germany, and with it the idea of climate protection, is the anti-nuclear movement and the rise of the Green Party at the end of the 1970s. As opposition to nuclear power and support for the Greens grew – resulting in their election into government in 1998 (see above) - so did the general public’s awareness of environmental and climate protection.

"It is true that, at the beginning of the energy transition in Germany, we argued mainly about nuclear power. But in parallel to the nuclear phase-out, we created the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) in 2000. With this law, we wanted to prevent the nuclear phase-out from leading to an increase in fossil power generation and a burden on the climate. In reality, much more has been achieved in the last two decades. Renewables generate much more electricity in Germany today than nuclear power plants did in 2000,” Rainer Baake, managing director of the Climate Neutrality Foundation and one of the architects of Germany’s first nuclear exit legislation and former energy ministry state secretary, told Clean Energy Wire.

The first EEG, which gave a feed-in payment to producers of wind and solar power, initiated a renewables boom, lowered the price for the new technology considerably, and saw the share of renewables in the German power consumption grow from 6 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2020. This transition in the power supply – known as “Energiewende” - raised the awareness and ambition to also decarbonise other sectors and led to the 2020 decision to phase-out coal power by 2038 at the latest. The new German government wants to move this end-date forward to 2030.

What do different stakeholders in Germany think about the nuclear exit?

Ever since the latest nuclear phase-out was decided by a large majority in the federal parliament (Bundestag) in 2011, the public has remained supportive of exiting nuclear power for good.

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 the Fukushima accident that “nuclear power is neither safe nor clean” and could not be a part of a low-carbon power production. 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.

The new German government of Social Democrats (SPD), Green Party and Free Democrats (FDP) which took office in December 2021 wrote in its coalition treaty “we stand by the nuclear phase-out”. The new (Green Party) environment minister Steffi Lemke said in December 2021: “Nuclear power would make our energy supply neither safer nor cheaper. A technology that has no solution for the disposal of toxic waste cannot be sustainable." Climate and economy minister Robert Habeck (Green Party) said on 28 December: "The nuclear phase-out in Germany has been decided, clearly regulated by law and is valid. Security of supply in Germany continues to be guaranteed. Now it is important to consistently push ahead with the transition of our energy supply."

When looking at the individual political parties, both Green Party and SPD are against using nuclear power. In the conservative parties (CDU/CSU) there are voices who say that Germany should have phased-out coal before nuclear and not both at the same time. “If the issue is considered as important as I think it is, the order in Germany was wrong. First to get out of nuclear energy and then out of coal. That is now history. But the path was wrong,” CDU-CSU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet said in summer 2021.

Only the right-wing populist AfD is in favour of new nuclear power stations.

Energy utilities and operators of Germany’s remaining nuclear power stations are adamant that there will be no extension of the reactors’ runtime. The large German utilities have – after years of struggling – embraced a renewable future and the planning security that the end of nuclear power gives them. They also point out that all the legal (compensation) issues of the nuclear phase-out have been resolved, operating licenses are scheduled to expire and difficult to re-obtain, contracts with suppliers and other service companies have been terminated, staff has been reassigned and there is no longer enough fuel.

Is there still a debate to continue the use of nuclear power and could its proponents succeed?

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 (see below: Shouldn’t Germany – like other countries – embrace and support the use of new small modular reactors?).

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."

Why isn’t Germany phasing out coal before nuclear?

As explained above [see: Why the nuclear phase-out was the enabler of the energy transition] the decision to phase-out nuclear power was also the starting point for decarbonising the country’s power supply by mainstreaming renewable energies and lowering their prices until they became cheaper than new conventional plants.

As for the government in 2000 or 2011 deciding to phase-out coal, instead of nuclear power: Compared to most countries – which largely took their coal exit decisions after the Paris Agreement of 2015 and several more pledged to end coal at the UN climate summit COP26 in 2021 – this would have been an extraordinarily early push to end the use of a historically familiar, domestic, and reliable power source, at a time when renewables didn’t present such an affordable and secure alternative as they do now.

Since the nuclear phase-out decision of 2000, the share of coal power in Germany’s electricity generation has fallen from 43 percent in 2011 (when 7 nuclear plants went offline) to 23.4 percent in 2020. No new coal power stations have been planned/constructed since 2007.

Nevertheless, it does paint a rather questionable picture if a nation that sees itself as a climate action pioneer still boasts some of the largest power station emitters in Europe and, without the effect of the COVID-19 lockdowns, would likely have missed its emission reduction goals in 2020. However, Stefan Rahmstorf, Head of Earth System Analysis at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, points out that “emissions from the energy sector have been cut in half since 1990 […] It's the other sectors which have failed so far to deliver their cuts”.

Campaigning against its fossil plant fleet led to the coal phase-out decision of 2020 – albeit with a rather late end-date for coal in 2038. At the time, this date was still in line with a climate neutrality target of 2050, and the new government’s suggestion to end coal by 2030 will make the new net zero target of 2045 achievable.

“Germany’s too-slow emission reductions cannot simply be linked to the timing of the nuclear and coal phase-outs, Simon Müller, Director Germany at think tank Agora Energiewende, told Clean Energy Wire. “After the boom years, the government let the renewable markets crash. With a more ambitious renewables expansion, the share of CO2-free power generation could be much higher now,” he said.

Another difference between coal and nuclear: Although keenly embraced by the leading parties in the 1960s, nuclear power was a relatively new phenomenon which didn’t have a strong footing in society and soon got discredited by accidents and protests. Coal mining, on the other hand, has been deeply rooted in several German states for 200 years. It used to have a large – and often proud – workforce with considerable political influence and was often the main employer and economic stronghold of a region. It is (or, in the case of hard coal, was) also a domestically available energy source.

These are among the reasons why it was easier for Germany to initiate the exit of nuclear power before the phasing out of coal.

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.

How does Germany want to make net-zero happen without nuclear?

Germany’s energy transition in the electricity sector has turned into a comprehensive plan to decarbonise the entire economy and reach net-zero greenhouse gases in 2045. With nuclear power and coal out of the picture by the end of the decade, the new government – which is adhering to the previous government’s climate targets – is putting the focus on renewables growth. Its aim is to reach a share of 80 percent renewables in electricity demand (which is envisaged to grow). SeveralGermany net-zerostudies have shown that a system based on renewables is possible.

The government acknowledges that a fleet of flexible (and hydrogen-ready) natural gas plants will be necessary to run a stable power system. Between 2019 and 2030, 21 GW of lignite and 25 GW of hard coal capacity will be shuttered, research institute EWI has calculated. Existing over-capacities, new flexibility options, and efficiency - as well as the addition of renewables capacity - will mean that not all of this controllable power plant capacity will need to be substituted, German energy industry association BDEW says. “But an earlier coal phase-out means we will need an additional 17 GW in gas-fired capacity,” BDEW head Kerstin Andreae said.

Germany will have to be even more interconnected with neighbouring countries to exchange (renewable) power in times of low wind and little sun. It will need to upgrade its grid system. To supply power stations and industry, large amounts of hydrogen will be needed and imported.

Why doesn’t Germany get an energy system with both renewables AND nuclear?

Its advocates portray nuclear power as a stable energy source that can help to secure supply during times of little wind and sun. "We need renewables to be complemented by a reliable, 24/7 energy source," said James Hansen, a climate scientist at Columbia University when taking part in a pro-nuclear climate demonstration in Berlin.

But German energy experts have their doubts about whether fluctuating renewables are best complemented by nuclear. "A climate-friendly electricity system dominated by weather-dependent production from wind and solar plants requires a great deal of flexibility to balance fluctuating supply with fluctuating demand. Nuclear power plants are technically and operationally designed for production that is as constant as possible. They are the exact opposite of what wind and solar need as partners," Rainer Baake said.

Simon Müller, of Agora Energiewende, explains: “Nuclear and renewables are cheap to operate once they are built. This means ramping nuclear up and down is not an economic way to provide flexibility for the power system. Indeed, today’s pumped storage and demand-side response was built decades ago to provide flexibility to integrate nuclear power. Having both nuclear and renewables in the same system therefore increases the importance of other flexibility options.”

Will Germany become dependent on (nuclear) power imports from abroad?

Critics have called Germany’s decision to turn its back on nuclear energy hypocritical because it would continue to receive nuclear power generated in France or Belgium. Germany has power cable interconnectors with its European neighbours and has been a net exporter of electricity for many years. In addition to its nuclear and coal power generation, it had a growing share of renewable generation which buyers in the internal European power market liked to source because it is cheap. With the nuclear and coal exit, it will lose some of its overcapacities and more often import power from its neighbours – who also generally have a growing renewables share – but it won’t be alone in doing so.

In the future European electricity system, it is going to be “completely normal to exchange electricity continuously and dynamically with neighbouring countries”, Simon Müller told Clean Energy Wire. For example, will the wind parks of Europe source power from the same low-pressure system as it moves across the continent, with the windiest country supplying the others before the next one takes over that role and so on.

What’s more expensive – renewables or nuclear?

One of the reasons why it is an obvious choice for Germany to make wind and solar its main power source rather than nuclear, is that new renewable installations have become cheaper than all other electricity sources – especially where a CO2 price is applied.

According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2021 and Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut), the energy costs for nuclear power generation are currently 15.5 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 4.9 cents for solar energy and 4.1 cents for wind power.

The British government has given a price guarantee of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for 35 years to the nuclear power plant project Hinkley Point C. In Germany, feed-in tariffs for onshore wind and solar PV are between 6-7 ct/kwh or, in some tenders, even lower. Offshore wind parks are now being built without any government support.

New reactor projects often turn out to be much more expensive than envisaged. The costs for a new “Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR)“ in Flamanville, France, have risen from 3.4 billion to more than 19 billion euros, while the project will likely take at least 11 years longer than planned. Similar price hikes and delays have occurred in the UK, Finland and the U.S..

“Nuclear technology has had negative learning rates, which means that new projects became more expensive instead of cheaper. If we take current investment costs as a basis, then it is clear that the cheapest power system is one that is fully based on renewables,” Simon Müller said. The global market situation shows that renewables dominate investments. The 2050 long-term projections by the International Energy Agency (IEA) see nuclear energy supplying about 10 percent of electricity. “For the transformation, we need to thus look to renewables,” Müller said.

As many new nuclear projects also take considerably longer to construct than planned, the Öko-Institut concludes that it would also be faster to build a system based on renewables.

Nuclear power in the EU taxonomy and Germany’s position

Observers have called France’s push to include nuclear power projects in the EU taxonomy as a sustainable investment a “political nightmare” for Germany. Backed by a group of other European countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, Hungary, Poland and Romania, French President Emmanuel Macron tries to make nuclear power a pillar of the EU’s decarbonisation strategy, while Germany is betting heavily on wind and solar power. It is supported in its push for a nuclear-free taxonomy by Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark. Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats (SPD), has told Macron that he has always been opposed to nuclear power, much like his coalition partner, the Green Party.

If included in the taxonomy, nuclear power investments could be part of green funds, banks could declare loans to nuclear projects as sustainable investments – all in aid of getting more private investment to flow into climate friendly economic activities and businesses.

Agora Energiewende’s Müller says the German approach is still more future-proof. "The idea that nuclear power stations can be built at predictable costs and by a predictable schedule has not proven to be realistic. We also still have the unresolved problem of nuclear waste storage as well as the possibility of a major accident. Germany’s decision to focus on the expansion of renewables instead of nuclear is reflected also by the markets as renewables dominate electricity investments internationally."

The European Commission is set to come out with a proposal for the taxonomy in January 2022, which EU member states will then decide on with a majority vote. Instead of an in-or-out decision on nuclear (and natural gas), the commission is likely to present a compromise that would classify nuclear as a temporary, transitional technology which has to be labelled and declared in funds so that consumers and investors have the choice between “entirely green” products, e.g. renewable energies, or second or third tier products that include nuclear or gas technology.

Whatever the decision, Müller says Germany and France should focus more on the common ground concerning the energy transition. “Recent French studies show – independently of the future of nuclear energy – that a massive expansion of renewables is needed to reach the climate targets. And there are also opportunities for cooperation between Germany and France on green hydrogen."

Shouldn’t Germany – like other countries – embrace and support the use of new small modular reactors?

Using a large fleet of small modular reactors (SMR) to secure climate neutral electricity supply in the future - as proposed by billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates – has been hailed as a climate change solution. In Belgium, which is set to shutter its two remaining nuclear power stations by 2025, the government agreed to invest 100 million euros in the research on SMR.

SMR proponents claim that, once produced in bulk, these small plants are cheaper and safer thanks to advanced reactor designs and can be operated with converted short-lived radioactive materials, solving the waste problem. But two assessments commissioned by the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE) have found that these tens of thousands of small reactors would carry enormous risks with regard to the proliferation of weapons-grade materials and will probably never be as cheap as their advocates say.

What is different in Germany compared to other countries in Europe which embrace nuclear as a CO2-free solution?

Germany not only has strong public support for, and a long history of, anti-nuclear sentiment, it also has only 11 percent of nuclear left in its power mix. Leaving it behind entirely is therefore a more obvious and easy decision than for other countries, such as France, where the share of nuclear power in domestic generation stands at 70.6 percent, but also in Bulgaria with 40.8 percent, in Sweden with 29.8 percent (in Spain: 22.2%, Russia at 20.%, United States at 19.7%, UK 16%, all in 2020).

Historians also explain the different attitude towards nuclear with the different reactions to the Chernobyl accident, which was felt much closer and more threatening to Germans compared to French or UK citizens. Another explanation for Germany’s sensitivity to nuclear power is that early on, the post-war critique of nuclear weapons was linked to the civilian use of nuclear fission. (A second wave of the German peace movement in the 1980s would also bolster a younger generation’s resistance to nuclear power.)

And even if there are people who make a case for nuclear for climate protection reasons, the exit has now proceeded too far to be reversed, and there is simply no influential political power that would consider re-opening the painful, decade-long debate on nuclear power that has finally been put to rest.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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