The wisdom of Germany’s nuclear phaseout

The country’s environment and nuclear safety minister lays out the administration’s reasons for quitting atomic energy after the last few plants closed this month, even as interest in the technology slowly rises in other parts of the world.

Gundremmingen Nuclear Power Plant
Gundremmingen nuclear power plant in Germany. Image: Wikipedia Commons/ Felix König.

With the shutdown of its last three nuclear power plants, Germany has completed its phaseout of nuclear power. As the minister responsible for nuclear safety in Germany, I believe that this was an excellent – indeed, visionary – move. There are many important justifications, but five are especially compelling.

First, phasing out nuclear power makes Germany safer. No nuclear power plant in the world is so secure that a catastrophic accident can be ruled out. Such an accident could be caused by human error, as in Chernobyl in 1986, or a natural disaster, as in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. It could be caused by a terrorist attack, plane crash, or simply an overlooked weakness in our safety strategies. Or, in the worst case, it could arise from a military attack, like those Russia has carried out in Ukraine.

Whatever the cause, an accident in a nuclear power plant can be catastrophic, causing devastation on a scale that no other form of energy generation could match. No insurance policy covers this risk, in Germany or anywhere else. The environment ministry, the country’s highest nuclear-safety authority, has spent decades ensuring that power plants adhere to the highest standards. But no matter how hard we work, there is no absolute safety with nuclear power, which is why the phaseout is a relief for me.

A second reason to welcome Germany’s nuclear-power phaseout is that we will no longer be producing highly radioactive nuclear waste. Nuclear power has provided electricity for three generations, but its legacy of radioactive waste will be a burden for the next 30,000. How a technology with such long-lasting consequences could be classified as sustainable is a mystery to me.

In fact, despite the phase-out, the legacy of waste means that Germany still has a long road ahead on ensuring nuclear safety. There is currently no final repository to store spent fuel rods safely in operation anywhere in the world, and finding a site for one is hugely difficult and costly.

Third, despite what advocates claim, nuclear power is neither climate-friendly nor particularly reliable. Even if it contributes less to the climate crisis than coal or gas, it is clearly bad for the climate, not least because reactors must be cooled with large amounts of water. This puts significant pressure on local rivers, which are already under stress from climate change. France had to import considerable amounts of electricity from Germany last year, owing to technical problems with its reactors and a lack of sufficient water to cool them. In some cases, rivers became so overheated that water for cooling reactors could be neither withdrawn nor discharged.

As temperatures rise and droughts proliferate, limitations on the use of river water for cooling nuclear reactors will intensify. We need a resilient energy supply that not only avoids contributing to climate change, but also can withstand the unavoidable effects of higher temperatures. In this sense, nuclear power is not fit for the future.

The fourth point worth highlighting is that nuclear power is not cheap, especially when one accounts for the costs of uranium extraction, waste management, and insurance. In the United States, 12 nuclear power plants were taken off the grid between 2009 and 2021, because they were not economically viable.

New nuclear projects are not worthwhile without significant government subsidies. The Flamanville-3 project in northern France is running 12 years behind schedule, and will cost well over US$11 billion more than originally planned. The costs of nuclear power are also exploding in the United Kingdom and Finland. And if Europe wants to end its dependence on Russian energy imports, it will have to end imports of uranium and nuclear-fuel elements as well.

The final reason to welcome the shutdown of Germany’s remaining nuclear plants is that we simply do not need nuclear power. There are better alternatives. Solar and wind power are now much cheaper to generate. They are also safer, more sustainable, and more climate-friendly. With the right standards in place, they are also compatible with nature conservation.

This helps to explain why nuclear power’s share of total global primary energy consumption has been falling since 2000, accounting for only 5 per cent in 2019. In contrast, renewable energy has been on the rise for years. Production costs are falling, and installed capacity is growing – including in Germany since the current government took office.

Recognising the critical importance of a safe and affordable energy supply, particularly for a country whose prosperity is also based on energy-intensive industries, from mechanical engineering to automobile manufacturing, German policymakers are making large-scale investments in renewable energy. We are also investing in green hydrogen, storage technologies, energy efficiency, and energy savings.

The expansion of renewable energy is undoubtedly challenging, and we must admit that we are not yet as far along as we would like. At the same time, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has forced us to return temporarily to coal and liquefied natural gas. But none of this amounts to a convincing argument in favour of keeping, let alone expanding, nuclear power.

Successive German governments, all of our country’s democratic parties, and even the operators of the nuclear power plants agreed to phase out nuclear power, persuaded by the same compelling logic that drove countless citizens, farmers, winegrowers, and mayors to spend decades advocating for a phase-out. It would be truly irresponsible to turn our backs on this broad societal consensus.

Steffi Lemke is Germany’s federal minister for the environment and nuclear safety.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2023

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