Germany is steadfastly committing to its nuclear phase-out, despite the ongoing European energy crisis. The nation plans to decommission its last three nuclear reactors on April 15, signaling its confidence in achieving a successful green transition without relying on nuclear power. The nuclear power plants in Baden-Württemberg, Isar 2 in Bavaria, and Emsland near the Dutch border will soon become remnants of the past.
While many Western nations continue to depend on nuclear energy, Europe’s economic powerhouse is forging ahead with its commitment to renewable energy, even though the move remains contentious. The decision to phase out nuclear power was first made in 2002 and subsequently fast-tracked by Angela Merkel in 2011 following the Fukushima disaster. The catastrophe in Japan revealed that “even in a high-tech country like Japan, the risks associated with nuclear energy cannot be controlled 100%,” as the former chancellor stated, convincing the German public to support the phase-out.
However, the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, forced Germany to confront the challenges of its energy policy. As Russia essentially halted the flow of gas to Germany, the country faced potentially disastrous scenarios, including factory closures and a lack of heating in winter. With the deadline for closing the last three reactors initially set for December 31, public opinion started to shift.
Neckarwestheim’s mayor, Jochen Winkler, acknowledges the increasing calls for extending the plants’ operation due to high energy prices and climate change concerns. Nevertheless, Olaf Scholz’s government, which includes the Green Party, staunchly opposed to nuclear power, decided to prolong the reactors’ operation only until April 15. According to Winkler, a relatively unproblematic winter, aided by massive imports of liquefied natural gas, meant that the situation did not escalate to the point where a new discussion was necessary.
Germany has closed 16 reactors since 2003. Last year, the remaining three facilities supplied just 6% of the country’s energy, compared to 30.8% in 1997. Meanwhile, renewable energy’s share in the energy mix has risen to 46% in 2022, up from under 25% a decade earlier. However, the current pace of progress in renewables is insufficient to meet either the government’s or environmentalists’ expectations. Georg Zachmann, an energy expert at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, points out that achieving climate targets is already challenging without factoring in the nuclear phase-out.
With the ambitious goal of closing coal-fired power plants by 2038, and many by 2030, Germany faces an even more complex task. Coal still represents a third of the country’s electricity production, with an 8% increase last year to compensate for the lack of Russian gas. To meet its energy needs, Germany must install “four to five wind turbines every day” over the next few years, as stated by Olaf Scholz. This target appears daunting compared to the 551 turbines installed in 2022. However, a series of regulatory relaxations adopted recently could help accelerate the transition. The wind power industry association (BWE) suggests that reducing the average planning and approval process for a wind power project from four to five years to one or two years would be a significant improvement.