The great break-up

24 May 2023

Antinuclear politics finally got its big victory with the German shutdown in April. It is the end of an era for the country as well as for nuclear, which now has the opportunity of a fresh new start.

After more than two decades of being a punchbag for successive German governments, the country’s nuclear power sector was finally closed ostensibly for good on 15 April, having given a few months extra service to ease the energy shortages caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The day was marked by two events at Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate. On one side of the landmark, Greenpeace were celebrating. On the other side was an event by plucky pro-nuclear voices from Germany and around Europe under the ‘Stand Up For Nuclear’ banner. Their slogan was ‘Kernkraft gewinnt’, meaning ‘nuclear power wins’, and they presented a message that it will inevitably return to the country.

At first it is hard to to see how that can possibly be a suitable slogan on the day of the final closure, but in one sense at least, the nuclear demonstration did win. The big international NGO created a set piece of nuclear as a dinosaur lying dead with its legs in the air and surrounded by – you guessed it – yellow drums of ‘nuclear waste’. The same stuff it has been doing for ever, but not many supporters turned up to their tired display. Despite miniscule budgets and on behalf of the supposedly most unpopular energy source on earth Stand Up for Nuclear mustered more people than Greenpeace did.

The debate is not where it was when the phase out began. Today, many people see the Greenpeace position as an antinuclear emperor with no clothes. They know the supposed benefits of closing nuclear are not real, while the consequences of not having it as an energy source most certainly are. People now know that the antinuclear offer represents billions in wasted infrastructure and carbon dioxide emissions weighed against nothing more than a minority’s satisfaction in holding on to their antinuclear identity. That’s perhaps why so few people actually turned up for Greenpeace’s party and why its announcement of victory was ultimately swamped by a multitude of pro- nuclear comments calling out the stupidity of the move they so fervently advocated.

Despite the embarrassing reality of their position, there is still little hope that dyed-in-the-wool antinuclear NGOs will ever change. They love to hate nuclear. There still seems to be some fight continuing at the EU level, too, for example in the shell game of placing nuclear outside the category of ‘strategic’ technologies. This despite having lost the fight over whether nuclear power is ‘sustainable’ enough for the Taxonomy.

In line with public and political opinion, international pressure is mounting against this kind of thing. The head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, called on EU members with antinuclear stances to engage in serious introspection. There finally seems to be a real coalition of pro-nuclear nations in the EU as a counterweight to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Denmark. The pro-nuclear group actually includes Italy, the only other country with similar experience to Germany’s phase out path, having abandoned nuclear and closed its reactors in the 1990s.

With the power plants closed there will probably be a switch of focus onto other nuclear facilities in Germany, such as Urenco’s enrichment plant at Gronau. Perhaps the timing for that will be fortunate, given the recent announcement by the G7 nations of Canada, France, Japan, the UK and the USA to double down on fuel cycle investment and become fully independent of Russian supply. Why shouldn’t France or even the US buy the German stake in Urenco and make the industry fully independent of Germany at the same time?

Is this bitterness towards Germany a case of sour grapes? Naturally, to a certain extent. In an ideal world this would be a much stronger industry that enjoyed the wholehearted involvement of a capable country like Germany. And perhaps we would all be much better off in that case. But the real-life Germany of the last 20 years? Nein danke. Perhaps we should say good riddance to what amounted to an abusive partner who was constantly undermining us and gaslighting our successes into excuses to tax and restrict the industry.

If you believe the rhetoric behind the nuclear phase out there will now be nothing standing in the way of the Greens and their long-standing renewables dream. Those annoying nuclear plants with their 24/7 availability that ‘clogged up’ the transmission wires with unwanted electricity are gone and the German grid must now be a gleaming autobahn of renewable energy speeding unhindered to its destination. Without a word of a lie we can wish them the very best of luck with that.

At the end of the day there are only really three ways to source energy: you can burn stuff, you can gather up ambient energy from the environment, and you can liberate it from the atomic nucleus. The first one has made us rich but comes with untold health problems and undoubtedly calamitous environmental impacts; the second kind we are already expanding and innovating as fast as we can. Germany has decided to forgo the third, but there’s no reason for anybody else to follow their lead. They closed down and stopped nuclear at the Generation II stage, making the decision to take no part in Generation III or even more recent innovations. The rest of us, who are by and large positive about making the best of the nuclear opportunities, will be the ones to bring forward the new scene of small and advanced reactors playing a wider range of roles in power, heat and liquid fuels as Generation IV comes into sight on the horizon.

It was in October 1998 that an SDP and Green coalition government agreed to legislate the nuclear phase out. At that time there was serious industrial opposition but overwhelming public support. By the time the phase out was complete that had transformed into clear public opposition and industrial apathy. Polling now shows almost all of Germany’s major political parties have a majority of supporters in favour of nuclear – even one third of Greens now view nuclear favourably.

Looking an equal time period into the future, how will nuclear look in 2047? Assuming net zero targets remain, they will be uncomfortably close. We can only be sure that Germany will have significantly less chance of meeting them due to its decision not to use all the tools that are available. The tools offered by our industry will be formidable indeed for the majority that chooses to use them.

At Stand up For Nuclear the crowd said that nuclear would inevitably return to Germany one day. Perhaps they will be proven right in the end, but we shouldn’t spend time thinking about it. Whatever lies in Germany’s future, it need not be this industry’s concern. Let’s grab this chance to leave their loss in the past and strike out on a new path in which those who enjoy the benefits of nuclear also wholeheartedly embrace it.

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 18 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

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