Germany has permanently shut down its final three commercial nuclear power reactors completing its delayed nuclear phaseout despite the ongoing European energy crisis and last-minute appeals for reactor lifetimes to be extended. E.ON’s Isar 2, EnBW’s Neckarwestheim 2 and RWE’s Emsland plants made up some 6% of the Germany’s total energy mix comprising some 4,055 MWe (of capacity. In 2011, following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan, Germany decided to phase out nuclear power. Until then, Germany had generated one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy with 17 reactors.

The 13th amendment of the Nuclear Power Act was put into effect in 2011, and eight nuclear units were permanently shut down in 2012. These included EnBW's Phillipsburg unit 1 and Neckarwestheim unit 1; E.ON's Isar unit 1 and Unterweser; RWE's Biblis A&B and Vattenfall's Brunsbüttel and Krümmel (both already closed). The remaining nine reactors were to close by the end of 2022. E.ON’s Grafenrheinfeld closed in 2015; RWE’s Grundremmingen B in 2017; EnBW’s Philippsburg unit 2 in 2019; and Vattenfalls Brokdorf, E.ON’s Grohnde and RWE’s Gundremmingen C in 2021. Two older reactors – E.ON’s Stade NPP and ENBW’s Obrigheim had already been shut down in 2003 and 2005.

However, in October 2022, in face of Europe’s growing energy crisis following the imposition of sanctions on Russian gas supplies, the German federal cabinet approved an executive decision allowing the three remaining NPPs to continue operating. A draft amendment to the Atomic Energy Act enabled them to operate until 15 April 2023 at the latest.

Research and development of nuclear energy began in (West) Germany in the 1950s. The first nuclear unit to deliver electricity to the grid system in 1961 was the 15 MWe VAK Kahl boiling water reactor (BWR). It operated for 25 years and was a valuable experimental facility until it was decommissioned in 1985.

Other small reactors, primarily for research and testing, operating at this time included 52 MWe MZFR pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR), and the 13 MWe AVR Jülich prototype pebble-bed reactor. The 62 MWe Rheinsberg VVER-70 plant was the first commercial nuclear power reactor in East Germany. The first larger-scale reactor to begin commercial operation in West Germany was the 237 MWe Gundremmigen-A BWR in 1967.

Scepticism about nuclear power began to grow during the early 1970s in West Germany sparking protests, which grew following the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979. The Greens, with their anti-nuclear campaign slogan “Atomkraft? Nein, Danke!” (Nuclear Power?, No, Thanks!), formed a political party in West Germany.

In 1990, following German reunification, the government finished closing down last of eight NPPs in former East Germany. In 2002, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Green party coalition government enacted a law to phase out nuclear energy. This was reversed in 2010 by Angela Merkel’s government (a coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free Democrats (FDP). This included plans to extend the operating lives of NPPs by 8-14 years. However, Fukushima put an end to these plans.

The closure of the last three plans has not been universally welcomed. Jens Spahn, deputy parliamentary leader of the CDU said the nuclear exit “is a black day for climate protection in Germany.” While the FDP had called for the plants to be kept on standby at the very least. “Shutting down the world's most modern and safest nuclear power plants in Germany is a dramatic mistake that will have painful economic and ecological consequences,” said FDP deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki.

A recent YouGov study published found only a quarter of Germans wanted the remaining plants to be switched off, with a third supporting a temporary extension and another third an indefinite delay to closure. The survey showed that even 44% of Green voters did not want an immediate shutdown.

However, Climate Minister Robert Habeck (Green Party) insisted that the closures would not affect energy security. However, while Germany has dramatically increased deployment of renewables, it still generates a third of its electricity from coal. "This Green climate minister prefers to let coal-fired power plants run … rather than climate-neutral nuclear power plants,” said Spahn.

Meanwhile, Bavarian Premier Markus Söder, chair of the Christian Social Union (CSU), has proposed that his southern German state should assume control of the Isar 2 NPP. He told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that this would require an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act to hand control of nuclear power from the federal to the state level.

"Bavaria is, therefore, demanding that the federal government give states the responsibility for the continued operation of nuclear power. Until the [energy] crisis ends and while the transition to renewables has not succeeded, we must use every form of energy until the end of the decade. Bavaria is ready to face up to this responsibility."

He added: "We are a pioneer in nuclear fusion research and are examining the construction of our own research reactor, in cooperation with other countries. It can't be that a country of engineers like Germany gives up any claim to shaping the future and international competitiveness."

Söder said the ruling coalition was acting "extremely naively and negligently" by hoping that next winter will be as mild as the last.

He noted that the regulator, the Federal Network Agency, has warned of an energy supply crunch next winter, despite Germany securing fresh supplies of liquified natural gas to offset the lack of Russian natural gas.

But while Germany closes it reactors down, many of some other European countries are looking to increase nuclear energy. Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 recently began operation after a 14-year delay. France plans to build six new reactors with an option for another eight in the future and also leads an alliance of 11 pro-nuclear countries within the EU pressing to include nuclear in the green taxonomy.

While Sweden earlier decided to phase out nuclear following the 1986 Chernobyl accident, this policy was reversed in 1996 and further nuclear expansion is now being considered. The Netherlands and Poland are planning nuclear newbuild, while Belgium is postponing its planned phase-out. Elsewhere in the world, China, Russia and India are pushing ahead with ambitious nuclear expansion programmes.

Even Japan is now seeking to speed up the restart of the reactors it closed following the Fukushima disaster. South Korea has also reversed its nuclear phase out plans and is pressing ahead with nuclear development.

KernD, an association representing the interests of nuclear technology in Germany, told DW that ending nuclear power was unwise in face of current energy crisis. "In view of climate policy and the very unfavourable development in electricity generation last year – due to a sharp increase in coal-fired power generation – the shutdown of three functioning nuclear power plants with a low greenhouse gas footprint beggars belief," a KernD spokesperson said. "Considering security of supply, environmental and climate protection, as well as competitiveness, more nuclear power would make more sense than none at all."

Image: The Isar nuclear power plant in Bavaria, Germany (courtesy of Christof Stache/AFP)