Germany has closed the last nuclear power plants, climate loses

nuclear waste

Germany has shut down its last three nuclear power plants. The shutdown marks the end of a stop-start approach to nuclear power and a victory for the country’s vociferous anti-nuclear power movement. The installations that will be closed are in Emsland, in the northern state of Lower Saxony, in Bavaria and in Neckarwestheim, Baden-Württemberg. These supplied 6.5% of the country’s electricity.

The closures pose a problem for energy policymakers trying to balance the growing demand for electricity in one of Europe’s industrial powerhouses with the drive towards a low-carbon economy, amid the uncertainty created by the war in Ukraine.

Germany postponed the shutdown of the three plants last year after Russia cut European gas supplies, raising concerns about energy shortages during the winter, writes The Guardian.

On and off again

The country began phasing out nuclear power more than two decades ago as part of a long campaign against the technology, but in 2010 Angela Merkel, the then chancellor, announced an extension of the life of the country’s 17 nuclear power plants to at least 2036.

This policy was quickly reversed the following year after an earthquake and tsunami caused the meltdown of reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The nuclear accidents of Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 had already strengthened resistance to nuclear power in Germany, which had begun earlier in the 1970s. Germany has shut down 16 reactors since 2003.

The final shutdown has raised questions about energy security and the prospects for German carbon emissions. The country wants to close all coal-fired power plants by 2038. The first round of closures is planned for 2030.

However, parliament last year passed emergency legislation to reopen shut-down coal-fired power stations to support electricity production. Construction of more terminals for liquefied natural gas imports has also accelerated since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Coal will account for just over 30% of Germany’s electricity generation in 2022, ahead of wind – accounting for 22%, gas-fired generation at 13% and solar at 10%. Biomass, nuclear energy and hydropower make up the lion’s share of the rest.

The think tank Ember estimates that by 2030, Germany and Poland will be the two largest producers of coal-fired electricity in the EU, responsible for more than half of the EU’s emissions by then.

Proponents of nuclear power argue that nuclear power is a low-carbon, reliable alternative to fossil fuels for electricity generation. Critics say new projects are expensive, often delayed and create environmental problems related to nuclear waste disposal.

But the comparison between building new nuclear power plants, or extending existing ones, is a very different one. Allowing existing nuclear power stations to run longer means an immediate saving on significant CO2 emissions, compared to a limited amount of extra nuclear waste of a few m3 per year, per power station. The now closed power stations also accounted for a comparative 34 billion m3 of gas, which now has to be purchased additionally. Partly also as LNG from Russia. The gain of the anti-nuclear energy movement is in this case a loss for the climate.

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