Facing a looming energy crisis, Germany is still pressing ahead with its policy of phasing out nuclear power. Is it time for a rethink?

At the very end of last year, Germany shut down half of its operating reactors as part of its long-standing policy to phase out nuclear power. Barely six months later and today the country is ramping up coal-fired capacity to meet its energy demand.

Germany has the stated aim of eliminating coal from its energy mix by 2030. The overarching aim is to significantly reduce carbon emissions and avert catastrophic climate change. However, some 10GW of coal-fired capacity that had been mothballed is now expected to be returned to service. The move has been prompted by the conflict in Ukraine and the decision to reduce German dependence on imported Russian gas. Russia has also apparently recently cut the throughput on the main gas export pipeline to Germany by some 60%, making the need for more non-gas generation capacity that much more urgent to avoid shortages.

Under the auspices of short-term emergency legislation to resurrect coal, the thermal plant will be powered up for as much as two years. German economic minister Robert Habeck, ironically a member of the Green party, was quoted as saying the move was “bitter but in this situation essential.”

At the same time as Germany all but abandons its net zero goals, at least temporarily, it is expected to continue with its plans to abandon nuclear power too. Just three nuclear power plants are operating currently – Emsland, a 1406MW PWR; Isar 2, a 1485MW PWR; and Neckarwestheim 2 a 1400MW PWR – and they too are slated for closure by the end of the year. All Germany’s working reactors began operations in the late-1980s and under current plans are being switched off after only around three decades. This would typically leave several decades of residual service life under different circumstances, although the German government has suggested that the technical and cost barriers to life extension are insurmountable. What is clear is that over the course of a single 12-month period Germany will have closed more than 8.5GW of operating nuclear generation.

The decision to press ahead with the nuclear shut down comes as the European Commission reveals plans to label some nuclear plants as “green” investments to reflect their low-carbon generation. However, Germany remains implacably opposed: “Nuclear energy is not sustainable and should therefore not be part of the taxonomy. Accordingly, the Federal Government would vote for the Council to object,” Germany’s environment ministry said in a statement.

But given the urgency of the climate change challenge, it’s hard to argue that nuclear power is not the sustainable option when the alternative is coal-fired capacity. Or that continuing to operate existing nuclear stations is a worse economic choice than launching a 20-year decommissioning programme that will cost north of €1.1bn per plant while the country faces an energy crisis.

Nonetheless, this is the direction that German energy policy is taking. And this is in spite of changing perceptions among the German populace. According to a YouGov survey from last November, 53% of Germans want nuclear to be a part of the energy mix, compared with just 28% who don’t.

It seems that Germany is pursuing a nuclear energy policy that is based on dogma rather than pragmatism and it’s a decision that will likely cost both the environment and the country’s energy consumers dearly. Perhaps instead it is time to recognise that times have changed and take a new approach – Atomkraft? Ja, bitte.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International