In his column for Zeit online on 10 August, Theo Sommer, the respected editor-at-large at Die Zeit, said Germany still needs nuclear power. He asks: “Will the lights go out in Germany in 2023 because we are no longer producing enough electricity?” He says German electricity consumption is currently around 580TWh per year, while the Federal Economy Ministry estimates that demand will increase by 15% to 645 to 665TWh in 2030.

“This is at the lower end of the currently discussed needs estimates. But they all agree on one thing: the planned output will by no means be sufficient. The Federal Audit Office warns of a blackout in the course of the energy transition.” He points to the considerable gap between the target of 65% of our energy from renewables “and the percentage of electricity that appears to be actually achievable from renewable sources”.

He says there is a lack of replacement energy for two reasons:

the phase-out of nuclear energy and coal means secured power plant output is falling while the transition to electromobility, advancing digitalisation and the expansion of the hydrogen economy are increasing electricity consumption “to an extent that is still immeasurable today”.

In autumn 2010, the federal government extended the service life of Germany’s 17 operating nuclear power units but in the spring of 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel – “a politician terrified by the Fukushima disaster” – pushed through the immediate shutdown of the seven oldest plants and the gradual shutdown of all others by 2023. When the six currently active plants – Brokdorf, Grohnde, Gundremmingen, Emsland, Neckarwestheim and Isar – go offline in 2022, German electricity generation will fall by around 12%.

He describes Germany’s move away from nuclear power as “totally repugnant”. He notes that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports 28 new states wanting to embark on nuclear power programmes while worldwide 400 nuclear plants are in operation in 33 countries, with new ones are being built in 13 countries, including the UK, Finland and Slovakia. At the same time, Rolls-Royce is developing small reactors as are Argentine, Russia and China while US President Biden is also having the technology researched.

Sommer says: “The German nuclear industry, once among the world's leaders, can only suck its thumb. It only takes part in the ITER project, the long-term goal of which is the fusion reactor, but which will hardly be operational before the end of our century. In the next year, the question that will certainly arise is whether we really want or can comply with the phase-out dates for the last nuclear power plants.”

The question is urgent, because Germany is also phasing out coal with last German hard coal mines shut down in 2018 and lignite-based power generation set to end by 2038. He asks where should the replacement energy come from, especially since the demand is increasing rapidly. He points to the increasing electromobility, which will increase the demand for electricity enormously. “In Germany today there are one million electrically powered vehicles, by 2030 – when all new cars and trucks are to run without petrol or diesel – there will probably be 4.3 million. Added to this is the power-guzzling expansion of digitization and the equally power-guzzling transition to the hydrogen economy.”

It is an illusion that green energy could replace the failure of coal power. “This would require 10,000 additional wind turbines and huge areas. But not only is there insufficient space for a full supply from renewable energy, we also have too few hours of sunshine and too many lulls in the wind. In addition, only a fifth of the routes from north to south that should be ready by the end of the nuclear phase-out are finished – and the Greens are lying to themselves and us if they consider the expansion of networks and routes to be the solution.” 

He cites Christian Bruch from Siemens Energy, who says that phasing out nuclear and coal energy means losing 40% of Germany’s generation capacity. “That means: We need bridging technologies that lead us into a carbon-free future without economic and social disruptions. Such a bridging technology is the natural gas from the pipelines, through which hydrogen can one day also be transported – but also nuclear energy, whose main problem, the disposal of nuclear waste, may be more solvable in two or three decades than it is today.” He concludes: “Keeping the six nuclear power plants running for the time being would enable annual savings of 90 million tons of CO2 from 2023 onwards. That would be a concrete and immediately effective climate protection programme.”