Germany began shutting down its three remaining nuclear power plants on Saturday as part of a long-planned transition to renewable energy, drawing applause from environmentalists who have campaigned for the move.
The shutdown of the Emsland, Neckarwestheim II and Isar II reactors, which was agreed more than a decade ago, was followed closely abroad.
Other industrialized countries, such as the United States, Japan, China, France and Great Britain, rely on nuclear energy to replace the fossil fuels that warm the planet. Germany’s decision to stop using both was met with some skepticism, as well as unsuccessful last-minute calls to stop the shutdown.
Decades of anti-nuclear protests in Germany, fueled by the disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, have put pressure on successive governments to end the use of a technology that critics say is dangerous and unsustainable.
Environmental groups celebrate
Environmental groups planned to mark the day with festivities outside the three reactors and rallies in major cities, including Berlin. Small ceremonies behind closed doors were also organized inside the establishments.
Atomic energy advocates say fossil fuels should be phased out as part of global efforts to curb climate change, arguing that nuclear power produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions and is safe when managed properly.
As energy prices soared last year due to the war in Ukraine, some members of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government have been reluctant to shut down nuclear power plants as scheduled on December 31, 2022. In a compromise, Scholz agreed to a one-time extension of the deadline, but insisted that the final countdown would take place on April 15.
However, Bavaria’s Conservative Governor Markus Soeder, who backed the original deadline set in 2011 when Chancellor Angela Merkel was in charge of Germany, this week called the closure “an absolutely wrong decision”.
“While many countries in the world are even expanding nuclear power, Germany is doing the opposite,” Soeder said. “We need every possible form of energy. Otherwise, we risk rising electricity prices and alienating businesses.”
Nuclear power advocates around the world have criticized the German shutdown, aware that the action by Europe’s largest economy could deal a major blow to a technology they tout as a clean and reliable alternative to fossil fuels.
‘Deal’: German government rejects calls to delay shutdown of last three nuclear reactors
Environmental activists celebrate the shutdown of three German nuclear reactors
Germany plans to reduce public and private sector energy consumption by 26.5% by 2030
Short-term return to coal
The German government has acknowledged that, in the near term, the country will need to rely more on polluting coal and natural gas to meet its energy needs, even as it is taking steps to massively increase electricity generation from solar and wind. Germany aims to be carbon neutral by 2045.
But officials such as Environment Minister Steffi Lemke say the idea of a nuclear renaissance is a myth, citing data showing that the share of atomic energy in global electricity generation is declining.
At a recent press conference in Berlin, Lemke noted that construction of new nuclear power plants in Europe, such as Hinkley Point C in Britain, has experienced significant delays and cost overruns. Funds spent on maintaining aging reactors or building new ones would be better spent on installing low-cost renewable energy, he said she.
The northwestern city of Lingen, home to the Emsland plant, intends to become a hub for hydrogen production using cheap electricity generated by North Sea wind farms, Mayor Dieter Krone said.
The operator of the power plant, RWE, has made it clear that it is committed to the shutdown. The company still operates some of Europe’s dirtiest coal-fired power stations. He recently promoted the destruction of a village for a mine expansion as part of a plan to increase production in the short term before ending the use of coal by 2030.
The dismantling will be expensive
Many of Germany’s nuclear power plants will still be undergoing costly decommissioning by then. The question of what to do with the highly radioactive material accumulated in the 62 years since the country’s first reactor went into operation remains unresolved. Efforts to find a permanent home for hundreds of toxic waste containers have met fierce resistance from local groups and officials, including Soeder, the Bavarian governor.
“Nuclear power has provided electricity for three generations, but its legacy remains dangerous for 30,000 generations,” said Lemke, who also pointed to previously unconsidered risks such as targeting civilian nuclear facilities during conflicts.
Finding a place to safely store spent nuclear fuel is a problem facing other nations using the technology, including the United States. However, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said nuclear power “will play a critical role in America’s clean energy future.” This week you welcomed Japan’s decision to restart many of its reactors.
With a national debate raging again in Germany about whether nuclear shutdown is really a good idea, a reporter asked the senior official responsible for nuclear safety at the environment ministry, Gerrit Niehaus, to summarize in one sentence what lessons should be learned from the country’s brief atomic age.
“You have to think things through to the end,” Niehaus said.