The movement began with pacifists tying themselves to fences in front of nuclear power plants. The effort to shut down German nuclear power stations will end five decades after it began with echoes from the Cold War period in which it started, as Russia's conflict in Ukraine reminds us of the dangers and promises of nuclear energy.
Germany's remaining three reactors will shut down on Saturday, ending the nuclear power generation for Europe's biggest economy. The move comes at a time when the continent is grappling with whether it can secure sufficient energy to drive its economy and keep homes heated while also meeting ambitious climate targets.
Germany is an exception in the industrialized world. Britain, Finland and France have increased their reliance on nuclear power as a reliable source of electricity with low carbon emissions. Poland signed a contract with Westinghouse Electric last year to build its nuclear power plant. It is located about 200 miles east from the German border.
The Biden administration in the United States is supporting technology for a new generation smaller nuclear reactors to be used as an instrument of "mass decarbonization."
Even Germans who were once the main supporters of the nuclear shutdown are now having second thoughts. In a poll commissioned by Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild, 52 per cent opposed the end of nuclear power. This is because the country has begun to move away from its dependency on Russian fossil fuels.
Robert Habeck is the Greens' Economy Minister and insists on Germany being able to manage its nuclear exit. He pointed out that the country's gas tanks are over half full, which is a substantial cushion as heating season is almost over. Germany has built terminals for liquefied gas that will allow it to import the gas via cargo ships, instead of Russian pipelines which once supplied around 55 percent of Germany’s supply.
In an interview with Funke Media Group, Mr. Habeck stated that 'energy supply security in Germany was ensured and will continue to ensure'. He said that new European nuclear power plants were a "fiasco" due to their high costs, delays in construction and maintenance problems. Our energy system will look different: we will have 80 per cent renewable energies by the year 2030.
The German political system has long been divided over nuclear power. Peace activists, appalled by Cold War, have been fighting atomic energy in Germany since the 1970s. Some of them became founding members of Germany's coalition government, the Greens. The antinuclear campaign grew in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which created a cloud that reached West Germany and left scarring memories.
In 2000, a government with a strong leftist leaning had approved the plan to shut down German nucleopower, only for a conservative led by Angela Merkel to roll it back.
Merkel's abrupt reversal of course was due to the Fukushima disaster in Japan, which occurred in 2011. The Fukushima disaster caused German attitudes towards atomic energy to change again. Merkel's government has passed a law that will phase out Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors before the end of 2022.
Last year, the nuclear debate was given a new twist when Germany experienced its first winter without fuel supplied by Russia. In response to officials' calls for businesses and consumers alike to reduce their energy consumption, or else face rationing of energy, Olaf Scholz extended life expectancy on the last three nuclear plants until April 15, to ensure that there would be enough energy available at an affordable price until spring.
Business leaders say that with the conflict in Ukraine not ending anytime soon, it is not the right time to stop a relatively inexpensive source of electricity.
Peter Adrian, the head of the German Chambers of Commerce and Industry said that the country could be threatened by power instability, which would undermine its position as a global industrial leader.
Two dozen Nobel Prize winners and scientists from around the world sent Mr. Scholz an open letter on Thursday urging him not to change his mind, citing nuclear energy as a viable alternative to power plants that emit greenhouse gases.
In a press release, the RePlanet alliance, the group that organized the letter, stated, "Germany's electricity grid is among the most carbon intensive in Europe."
Last year, the International Energy Agency stated that nuclear energy could play a crucial role in helping to reduce carbon emissions and achieve the goals of Paris Climate Accord. The International Energy Agency said that nuclear power could play a key role in the development of carbon-free synthetic gasolines, also known as green hydrogen.
Experts in climate and energy predict that Germany’s nuclear shutdown will only cause a temporary, slight increase in carbon emissions. This will be offset in the coming years by an increase in solar and wind power.
Andrzej Acygier, a Berlin-based expert from the think tank Climate Analytics, has rejected the argument that wind and solar power are more reliable than nuclear. He cited the drought and high temperatures of last summer, which forced many European countries to shut their reactors down when the rivers that were used to cool them became too warm or too low.
We're approaching a point where the Earth is getting warmer, more dangerous, and more unstable. He said that we could be in a very bad situation. Safety is a concern. We forgot about it, but shouldn't.
Steffi Lemke is Germany's environment minister. She argues that the conflict in Ukraine has increased the risks of nuclear energy.
She told Germanyfunk that 'we are facing a situation in which nuclear power plants are being bombarded by Russia because of its war of aggression, and are now the targets of military conflicts'. Nuclear power plants weren't designed to handle such a scenario.
Georg Zachmann, a climate expert and energy specialist at the Bruegel Brussels think tank, says that the three German reactors due to be shut down are safe, and they could continue to produce power for many more years at a relatively low price. This makes the decision to turn them off incredibly expensive. He said that plants in Britain, Finland, and France were running over budget. This could make the energy produced by these plants up to three-times more expensive.
Zachmann stated that he would not argue only Germans were crazy. "Shutting down nuclear power plants is expensive and building new ones is also expensive."