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Isar 2 nuclear power plant, Lower Bavaria, Bavaria, Germany Alamy Stock Photo
Ukraine War

Germany to shut its last nuclear power plants this weekend despite energy crisis

The last three reactors were due to be switched off on 31 December last year but that deadline was extended.

GERMANY IS SET to shut down its last three nuclear power plants this Saturday in spite of the country’s recent energy difficulties resulting from the war in Ukraine. 

The closure of the power plants was initially announced by former Chancellor Angela Merkel back in 2011, who committed the country to closing all nuclear plants by the end of 2022.

The last three reactors were due to be switched off on 31 December last year but that deadline was extended by current Chancellor Olaf Scholz until April this year, a decision prompted by the energy crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Unlike numerous European countries such as France, who see nuclear energy as a way of achieving emissions targets, Germany has been scaling back its nuclear power production for years, closing sixteen reactors since 2003. 

The remaining three power plants include one in Neckarwestheim, close to Stuttgart, the Isar 2 complex in Bavaria and the Emsland plant in the north. 

No going back now

Germany has a strong vein of anti-nuclear public sentiment which was put to the test in the months leading up to the December deadline, as many Germans worried about heating their homes.

“With high energy prices and the hot topic of climate change, there have of course been calls to extend the power plants,” said Jochen Winkler, the mayor of Neckarwestheim.

The government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, which includes the fiercely anti-nuclear Greens, agreed to extend the life of the plants to 15 April.

“There might have been a new discussion if the winter had been more difficult, if there had been power cuts and gas shortages. But we had a winter without too many problems thanks to accelerated liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports,” Winkler said.

Neckarwestheim has around 4,000 inhabitants, more than 150 of whom work at the plant – but Winkler is philosophical about the decision.

“The wheel has already been turned too far” and there is no point “going backwards” and reversing the process, he said.

The three final plants provided 6% of Germany’s energy last year, compared with 30.8% from all nuclear plants in 1997.

Meanwhile, Germany produced 46% of its energy from renewables in 2022, up from less than 25% a decade ago.

Nuclear power across the EU

Elsewhere in Europe, France is moving in the opposite direction on nuclear energy, with president Emmanuel Macron’s “nuclear acceleration” bill passing through the National Assembly last month. 

Although it is yet to become law, the proposed new legislation will make it easier to build new reactors and remove the 50% cap on the proportion of the country’s energy that can be produced from nuclear plants. 

Around a quarter of the EU’s energy comes from nuclear sources, with France producing by far the most. In February France joined ten other EU countries in an alliance for nuclear power in Europe. 

The other participants include Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. 

Ambitious German Targets

But the current rate of progress on renewables will not be enough for Germany to meet its own targets, much to the ire of environmental campaigners.

These targets “are already ambitious without the nuclear phase-out – and every time we deprive ourselves of a technological option, we make things more difficult,” said Georg Zachmann, an energy specialist at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank.

The equation is even more complex given the goal of shutting down all coal-fired power plants in the country by 2038, with a first wave of closures in 2030.

Coal still accounts for a third of German electricity production, with an 8% increase last year to compensate for the loss of Russian gas after Moscow cut supplies in response to Western sanctions over its Ukraine invasion.

The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline last September also added to Germany’s energy challenges. 

The country would need to install “four to five wind turbines a day” over the next few years to meet its needs, Scholz has warned – a tall order given that just 551 were installed last year.

A series of regulatory relaxations have been adopted in recent months in a bid to help speed up planning processes.

Planning and approval for a wind power project currently takes an average of four to five years, according to industry association BWE.

Even shortening this by one or two years would be “a considerable step forward”, it said.

Includes reporting by © AFP 2023 

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